Is it better to die in a blast, or is it better to die of radiation sickness?
In 1981, a small group of women set up camp outside the Greenham Common RAF base in a bid to stop nuclear war. They were protesting the decision of the UK government to allow the stationing of US nuclear weapons on British soil, and the number of protestors soon grew; they hoped for 16,000 to form a human chain around the RAF base – they got 30,000. The events were watched all around the world, inspiring a multitude of international anti-nuclear campaigns. Then there were the counter-demonstrations, often violent in nature. Mothers of the Revolution, directed by Briar March, tells the whole fascinating story.
That story is narrated by the legendary Glenda Jackson, but it is told mostly by the talking heads – women who were there, and remember how it all went down. Forty years later, Greenham still looms large for these women, who are often visibly moved when recounting their tales. The documentary reminds us that each one of the activists had their own personal struggles; they left their families, to make sure that their families would have a future.
Mothers of the Revolution balances the small-scale turmoil faced by the women individually with the larger, potentially world-ending context, using a wealth of archival footage to bring to life what a scary time in history they were living through; nuclear weapon convoys being driven through the quiet streets of Newbury is a jolting, sinister sight. There’s also plenty of footage from the camps at the Common, and the events that are captured – the ‘Embrace the Base’ demonstrations, police violence, the women’s fury when nuclear weapons are bought into the base – are hugely emotive. This was a well-documented protest, and March makes excellent use of all the available material, weaving it together into a gripping narrative.
There are just a couple of missteps along the way. Despite all that available material, the film also employs recreations, and though some of these are useful (largely in illustrating the behind-closed-doors meetings the Greenham women had in Russia), others are distracting and unnecessary. In addition, there aren’t enough time markers to illustrate just how long the protests lasted, or how many months passed between the headline events. Still, neither of these issues take away from the overwhelming power of the documentary.
Although it’s released in the fortieth anniversary year of the start of the Greenham protests, the film gains even more of a potency from the demonstrations that have happened over the last 18 months; in particular, it’s impossible to watch the footage of the Greenham women being physically removed from the Common by the police without thinking about the similar footage from the Sarah Everard murder protests. At a time when the UK government are making concerted efforts to crack down on the ability of people to rally against injustice, Mothers of the Revolution is a passionate example of why we must never stop fighting.