Documentary Film Reviews – Vol 88, No 1

CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION. Directed and produced by Shane O’Sullivan; executive producers: Alan Maher, Christiane Hinz; directors of photography: Bassem Fayad, Robin Probyn, Axel Schneppat; editors: Ben Yeates, Fergal McGrath, Shane O’Sullivan. London: E2 Films, 2011. 1 DVD (88 min.) US$150.00, institutions/universities; US$100.00, public libraries/high schools; US$30.00, personal use. In English, German and Japanese with English subtitles.

The name “Children of the Revolution” has graced a rock song, a flamenco band, two commercial films, and a spy novel. This one is a documentary film that views two famous radical women from the New Left protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Shigenobu Fusako of the Japanese Red Army and Ulrike Meinhof of the German Red Army Faction (RAF), through the eyes of their daughters, Bettina Röhl and Shigenobu Mei. Those simple facts, plus connections to the Palestine Liberation movement in Lebanon, pretty much exhaust the similarities between the two women.

Ulrike Meinhof was a decade older than Shigenobu Fusako and their daughters were also born a decade apart. Meinhof was a successful journalist in Germany during the 1960s, writing and editing the left-wing newspaper Konkret founded by her husband Klaus Rainer Röhl. He turned Konkret into a successful commercial magazine and they lived a middle-class life in Hamburg with their twin daughters until they divorced in early 1968. Meinhof moved to Berlin with her daughters, was swept up in the 1968 New Left protests, and got involved with a radical student group led by Andreas Baader that engaged in clandestine political violence and became known as the Baader-Meinhof gang.

By 1970 Meinhof had facilitated a prison break and the wanted RAF group escaped into temporary exile with the Palestinian movement in the Middle East. Meinhof decided to put her two daughters into a Palestinian camp for orphaned children to get a political education, so they were ripped out of second grade and taken to Italy while arrangements were made. Fortunately, after four months a friend learned the girls were in Italy and brought them back to Germany to live with their father. As Bettina recounts, the Palestinian camp was bombed a couple of months later and all the children there were killed. She blames the RAF for trying to control her life. Bettina saw her mother after she was arrested in 1972 and jailed in Germany, but lost contact again before her mother committed suicide in prison in 1976.

In interviews, several women who knew her depict Ulrike Meinhof as a talented but fragile woman who changed radically in 1968 and became mentally ill. A psychiatrist friend attributes it to the effects of brain surgery she underwent shortly after her daughters were born, while others point to depression, her new RAF friends, and the severe isolation she experienced during her first six months in jail. In clips from TV interviews in the early 1970s, Röhl downplays his ex-wife’s involvement in the RAF’s violent activity and emphasizes the good relations within the family. Despite clips of escalating violence at demonstrations with voice-over of Ulrike Meinhof urging revolution, her actions are treated as mental aberrations, not political agency. News clips from the time describe Meinhof as an anarchist, while her daughter protests that she knows nothing about “terrorism.”

The contrast with Shigenobu Fusako and her daughter Mei could not be more striking. The film recounts Shigenobu’s entry into New Left political activism as a student in Japan in the mid-1960s. Red Army Faction leader Shiomi Takaya describes her central role in the militant organization and depicts her subsequent move to the Middle East for the Red Army as consistent with her determined character. Her daughter Mei describes how Shigenobu arranged a paper marriage with another activist in order to leave Japan. Filmmaker Adachi Masao describes how when he went to Lebanon in 1971, Japanese Embassy officials in Beirut called Shigenobu “Sekigun-chan” [Little Miss Red Army]. Adachi made a film about the revolutionary training cooperation between the Red Army and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and later joined the Japanese Red Army.

Although the opening lines of the documentary erroneously describe Shigenobu as the “mastermind” of the Lod Airport attack, the people interviewed focus instead on its content and aftermath. Adachi describes the Lod Airport attack as a larger coordinated action planned by the PFLP, of which only the part involving three Japanese men was carried out, and Shiomi notes that civilians were caught in the cross-fire with Israeli soldiers during the attack. Shigenobu’s lawyer points out that the Japanese attackers are blamed for all the casualties because the Israeli government would not permit any outside investigation to determine what had actually happened. Adachi adds that when the attackers were identified as Japanese, the PFLP pressed Shigenobu to announce that the Red Army had carried out the attack. Consequently she became an assassination target and had to go into hiding. The film contains few images of Shigenobu, who was not photographed for security reasons during the many years she was in the Middle East.

Shigenobu’s Japanese husband died in the Lod airport attack. Her daughter Mei, whose father was a Palestinian fighter, was born a year later. Mei describes her unusual childhood as the oldest child in a small radical Japanese community in the Middle East that had to move frequently because of political danger. She was not only stateless, but had to change her false identity each time the group moved. Although she was close to her mother, for their mutual protection they spent little time together as she grew older. After her mother was arrested in Japan in 2000, her lawyer obtained Mei’s Japanese citizenship. Mei now works as a TV commentator and journalist in Japan, actively promotes the Palestinian cause, and meets weekly with her mother, who is serving a 20-year prison term.

The film is a well-crafted documentary that intersperses interviews with contemporary news clips and striking graphics from Adachi’s film, but also includes some material about the PFLP that may confuse viewers. The interviews humanize the two woman activists, one as mentally ill and the other as a strong political actor. Yet the film indulges in the usual sensationalized visuals of planes exploding. Unfortunately, these particular planes were blown up neither by the German RAF nor the Japanese Red Army, but by the PFLP.

Patricia G. Steinhoff, University of Hawai‘i, Honolulu, USA

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