Cinematic re-imaginings of 1968 have flooded our screens in recent years to mark the 40th anniversary of the global phenomenon of revolutionary action. Such films are often coloured in a dangerous hue of nostalgia or, even worse, attempt to market their subjects as seductive youths titillated by violence, cheapening the political vigour that drove them. Shane O’Sullivan’s documentary Children of the Revolution is certainly immersed in the same fascinations, yet comes from a different vantage point, offering a unique point of reference: the daughters of the revolution.
Children of the Revolution looks at the immediate aftermath of 1968 in Germany and Japan, from where revolutionary politics burst globally in the 1970s to have a long-lasting impact on our contemporary age. O’Sullivan positions Germany and Japan alongside each other for their shared histories as aggressors in the Second World War, as broken nations in its aftermath and, most importantly for this documentary, as countries that experienced large-scale civil revolt in the 1960s and into the 1970s. Both the Baader-Meinhof Group and the Japanese Red Army, leading activist groups of their respective nations, came up against limitations while operating within their own national borders and broke through internationally, ending up in Palestine to join its liberation movement. Both activist organisations involved women as central leading figures, namely Ulrike Meinhof and Fusako Shigenobu, and O’Sullivan details their personal histories through interviews with their daughters, Bettina Röhl and May Shigenobu, who were born and raised amid the chaos.
Addressing the daughters of the revolution is certainly an inspired choice. Our protagonists inherit the legacies of the revolutionary acts as if they’d been genetically bequeathed, an unavoidable part of their upbringing. Their appearance within the frame immediately elicits considerations of the aftermath of revolutionary action and whether we have a choice in the process of the past influencing our present. Moreover, O’Sullivan rebalances the often male-driven, testosterone-fuelled narratives of revolutionary action by focusing his attention on the female leaders who, in these cases, were not just participants, but leaders of the rebellion.
What is extraordinary about Children of the Revolution is the daughters’ differences of opinion about their mothers’ involvement in revolutionary politics. As journalists, both Bettina and May have a remarkable ability to critically observe a history so intertwined with their upbringing, yet have come to distinct conclusions. Although they don’t represent their respective nations’ standpoints, it hints at the fact that the way in which history enters the collective consciousness varies in each country. With both historical narratives fraught with factual complexity and incomplete chronicles, it was a brave decision for O’Sullivan to tackle both in one film; and, at least for this writer, a worthwhile choice if only for the revelations that emerge through comparative study.
The DVD release includes a re-edited version of Shane O’Sullivan’s previous documentary Under the Skin (2002), with an interview with revolutionary filmmaker Masao Adachi added to the impressive list of speakers, which includes Toshio Matsumoto, Kôji Wakamatsu, graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo and critic Donald Richie, to introduce Japan’s 1960s counterculture and the politics that bound it. Although less focused, it is a generous companion piece to Children of the Revolution and reveals O’Sullivan’s growth as a documentary filmmaker.
Watch the trailer: