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‘Children of the Revolution’

by Giovanni Fazio

When asked by a comrade why the press had such intense fear and loathing of the Red Army Faction’s female members, Ulrike Meinhof replied, “Women are at the heart of human reproduction. Women are supposed to be passive, obedient, available and conciliatory. Women who break away, refuse to accept all this, may even take up arms. They’re not supposed to do that. That’s why people hate us.”

And yet some of the radical-left guerrillas from the 1970s were, in fact, mothers. The documentary “Children of the Revolution” takes a look at two of them — Meinhof of Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang and Fusako Shigenobu of the Japanese Red Army — but the story is told through the eyes of their daughters, Bettina Rohl and Mei Shigenobu.

Director Shane O’Sullivan does a decent job of using documentary footage, and interviews with aging radicals, to show the slide from ’60s student protests into ’70s violent revolution, via state violence and repression of peaceful protests. (And people convinced of modern Japan’s political apathy may well be shocked to see the scenes of crazed street battles in Japan between students and cops in the ’60s.) Meinhof moved from being a political columnist to being one of the Bundesrepublik’s most wanted criminals, an anti-imperialist revolutionary involved in bombings and bank robberies. Shigenobu followed a similar path, starting with student protests against tuition increases and winding up in Lebanon training with the notorious Palestinian-guerrilla faction PFLP.

The history of both radical groups has been well traced on film (see “The Baader Meinhof Complex” and “United Red Army,” while Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” also contains dramatizations of the most notorious Red Army actions), but the history of these radical movements remains contentious. While many sympathized with their cause, their actions were problematic, to say the least, and it’s interesting to see how the daughters have come to terms with this legacy.

For Rohl, abandoned when her mother went on the run to Lebanon (Rohl’s twin sister Regine is notable by her absence), her mother’s descent into terrorism remains deplorable but seems out of character — an aberration, explained away as the result of the bad influence of more hardcore types such as Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, or a change in emotional stability after brain surgery for a tumor (prior to her joining the underground.)

For Mei Shigenobu, growing up in the Palestinian refugee camps without a passport has given her a perspective on injustice that fuels her work as a journalist today. Arguably, she’s a better spokesperson for the Palestinian cause than her mother ever was, given Fusako’s association with the Red Army’s cold-blooded and indiscriminate massacre of civilians at Tel Aviv’s Lod Airport in 1972. The film’s weakest point is certainly its failure to broach this topic with Mei. Overall, the film gives every opportunity to apologists for the radicals, with little room for the opposing view.