Talking about 'Children of the Revolution'

Posted on: 11 May 2011 by Alexander Hay

Shane O'Sullivan talks about his controversial new documentary


Hopefully, you'll already have read Older Is Wiser's review of Shane O'Sullivan's engaging new documentary, 'Children of the Revolution', which tells the story of two notorious radicals and the legacy they've left for their daughters.

With that in mind, we were more than happy to interview Shane about the film, and he was more than willing to oblige:

Firstly, Shane, please begin by introducing yourself.

I'm an Irish writer and filmmaker based in London. I primarily make films dealing with contemporary history. The Barbican is my local cinema, so it's great to premiere there.

Summarise your career up until Children of the Revolution

This is my second feature documentary. My first, RFK Must Die: The Assassination of Bobby Kennedy was released in 2008 alongside a book, Who Killed Bobby? Before that, I worked in drama, making the low-budget feature Second Generation.

So, what is Children of the Revolution about?

Ulrike Meinhof and Fusako Shigenobu emerged from the student revolutions of 1968 to become the leading female revolutionaries of their time. Appalled by the killing in Vietnam, they set out to destroy capitalist power through world revolution, as leaders of the Baader Meinhof Group and the Japanese Red Army. Authors and journalists Bettina Röhl and May Shigenobu explore the lives of their mothers, Ulrike and Fusako, providing a unique perspective on two of the most notorious “terrorists" in modern history.

On the run or kidnapped when their mothers went underground, May and Bettina emerged from difficult childhoods to lead their own extraordinary lives. With capitalism once more in crisis and revolution again sweeping the Arab world, we ask what were they fighting for and what have we learned?

Why did you decide to make the film?

I was really interested in the energy and idealism of 1968 and what happened to it afterwards. In Germany and Japan, it radicalised some students into more militant action and a spirit of internationalism brought these young revolutionaries together in the Middle East. Then, I read about the childhoods of May and Bettina and found a way to tell a big political story from a unique personal perspective.

What was it like making it?

Much of the film is in German and Japanese, neither of which I speak, so it was very complicated. Archive footage makes up about half the film, so finding rare footage and trying to stay true to events was a big challenge.

The focus of the film is on two controversial figures - is there a risk the film excuses or explains away their behaviour?

I think a lot of mythology is spun around controversial figures like this. They are vilified and caricatured but there are very human and complex motivations behind their actions and their choices were made in a very different political and cultural climate to today. You realise how complacent and docile we are now when it comes to accepting aspects of society that were challenged back then. I don't excuse their actions but I try to understand why they did what they did.

Another theme is memory, or rather, how these women are remembered by their daughters. Does this sort of subjectivity get in the way of documentary making, or does it assist it?

I think the strongest part of the film is the subjectivity of May and Bettina telling their mothers' stories. Their unique perspective is born of deep personal experience and deep research into the history and the politics of that time. They also have very different points of view, which gives a nice balance to the film.

What do you think the overall 'meaning' (purpose or what have you) of the film is?

I think the film humanises a very controversial subject and these personal stories help you reflect on the larger political themes - the nature of protest and resistance and how to challenge an unjust war, society or economic system.

What's the response been so far?

The response at festivals so far has been great. I was drawn to the film by history and politics but the human-interest stories told by Bettina and May seem to be what really hook audiences so far. Everyone can relate to the mother-daughter stories at the heart of the film. You imagine what their lives must have been like and put yourself in their shoes, to a certain extent.5

And finally, is there anything you'd like to add?

Thanks for the interview.

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Alexander Hay

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