30 years after the end of The Cold War, and 21 years after the land was returned to the public, there seems to be renewed interest in exploring the legacy of the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common. Some of the women there featured in the documentary Rebel Dykes, which showed at BFI Flare earlier this year and now there is this film, which digs much deeper into the specifics of the activism at Greenham and attempts to encompass its effects both on the cause the women were fighting for and on activism going forward.
Director Briar March focuses her narrative mainly around three of the activists she was able to interview: Karmen Thomas, at whose kitchen table the initial march to Greenham was conceived, when the idea of bringing American missiles there was first announced, Chris Drake, who participated in several of the more attention grabbing protests, and Rebecca Johnson, who was one of the more public faces of the movement.
I was 10 when the Soviet Union collapsed, and so I was never really aware of the potential nuclear threat growing up, nor was I aware of Greenham, except through the lens of history. Mothers of the Revolution tells some well known stories; the joining hands to surround the base, the continual protests outside each of the gates, the periodic forcible evictions of the camp. These are all well told both by the interviews and the substantial and well-chosen archive footage (mixed in with a little, fairly authentic looking reconstruction), but inevitably it is the stories that at least I hadn’t heard before that are the most fascinating material here.
Documentaries often try to take a wide view of a subject, and while that’s great for giving context, it can mean that you long for more on a certain aspect. There is a whole film here to be made on the contact and collaboration between some of the Greenham women and the Group For Trust, a Soviet group (in this case of men and women) wanting to establish contact and trust between Russians and Western citizens with the goal of peace and disarmament. This part of the film, often plays like a political thriller, with stories of the Greenham women’s trips to Russia to meet with one of the women from the group, eventually taking her with them to a meeting with the Soviet government. Sometimes the cutting between this story and the other events at Greenham and beyond makes the structure feel a bit messy, shifting narrative gears suddenly, and leaving the timeline not entirely clear.
On the whole, this is a celebration of Greenham, its spirit and its effect, all things worth celebrating. It does, however, glancingly address some of the more difficult aspects. We see some of the protests against the camp, some brutal moments in footage of the evictions, and there is a recreation of an incident in which Chris was assaulted by soldiers who poured hot coffee on her (she took the to court and won). At one point, in some ways the film’s darkest, Chris talks about her regret about having to sign over custody of her children to her ex-husband, because there was the possibility of a two year prison sentence hanging over her. It’s a sequence that makes you wonder about the wider impact of Greenham on Chris, and by extension on those of the other women, some of whom lived there for years.
As the film wraps up, March brings things full circle. The final sequence tries to draw parallels between Greenham and current resistance movements. Fair as those comparisons are, the sequence is clunky, coming only in the last two minutes of the film. Perhaps the note to leave on is the fact the women DID change things, and that it was acknowledged from the very top that their influence was key to at least one side signing up to the INF treaty in 1987; a remarkable achievement for a group that began at a kitchen table in South Wales.