Documentary studies children of American radicals
Tearsheets: Elaine Haffey, Fusco & Four Associates, One Murdock Terrace, Brighton, Massachusetts 02135.
ALSO SEND TEARSHEETS TO: Bo Smith, Film Coordinator, Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntinton Ave, Boston, MA 02115
CHILDREN OF THE LEFT
Directed by Eric Stange.
With Eugene Dennis Jr., David Horowitz,
Richard Healey, Country Joe McDonald,
and Joan Sokoloff.
Narrated by Don Wescott.
World premiere tomorrow in the Bartos
Theater (Wiesner Building) at 8 pm.
By MANAVENDRA K. THAKUR
"T HIS IS THE STORY ABOUT the personal side of that legacy, about the children who inherited the vision of American Communists of the 1930s, children known as `red diaper babies.' " So says the narrator at the beginning of Children of the Left, a new documentary by Cambridge-based filmmaker Eric Stange.
Working within the limitations of television, the 56-minute production interviews five red diaper babies (who are, of course, middle-aged adults by now) and focuses on the memories and scars left by their parents' radical politics. The documentary doesn't break any ground in the hallowed traditions of documentary filmmaking, but its subject matter is still fascinating. Stange realizes that people often recoil irrationally at the first mention of communism, and he handles his subject matter with astute sensitivity. Stange also provides an overview of the history of the American Communist Party with large amounts of archival footage and photographs.
All of the five red diaper babies in the film look back toward their parents with respect and pride. Despite communism's foreign roots, Eugene Dennis Jr., one of the five red diaper babies interviewed, says that he grew up with communism as a way of life, and so it was "very American" to him. Other interviewees talk about their "fond memories" and describe their upbringing as "a very rich way of life." One says "My father did what he did because" he felt change was necessary, and another observes that communism gave us "a world view."
At the same time, however, their parents' ideological commitment often took a severe toll on their personal and family life. For example, the children were trained early on in techniques to circumvent surveillance, such as writing messages down instead of openly talking in a bugged room. Constant vigilance and the awareness that their parents were different from other parents took their toll as well.
For example, Joan Sokoloff, another interviewee, remembers a bitter moment in childhood when she kept thinking "Why can't [my mother] be like everyone else's mother. . . and bake brownies?" Dennis' father was secretary general of the American Communist Party, and he appeared as the first witness before hearings held by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Dennis says he quickly noticed "a new tension" among adults around him who "closed ranks against an outside threat." The film does not elaborate on what effect these childhood perceptions might have had on Dennis and Sokoloff, nor does it need to. The film is at its best when it allows its interviewees to express themselves in this manner.
Dennis, it seems, is the star interviewee of the film. Stange relies on Dennis more than the others in the film, and shots of Dennis both open and close the film (with the exception of a brief prologue before the opening titles). Ideally, Stange should have found a better balance between his interviewees. In addition, the film shows only one woman and no minorities, who most likely would have been able to provide a different perspective on the whole era.
The film also touches on several issues that would be highly fascinating if explored further. The film points out, for example, the many of the red diaper babies joined the New Left movement of the 1960s "determined not to repeat the mistakes" of their parents. David Horowitz, who grew up in New York City, was an editor of Ramparts magazine in the 1960s. Today, he is a member of the Republican Party and works as "a neo-conservative political activist." On the other side of the spectrum is Country Joe McDonald, a singer who is just as leftist today as he was in the 1960s.
This raises a fascinating question of how people maintain or totally reverse their political ideology and how that ideology is affected by childhood memories. The film unfortunately does not have enough time to speak to these and many other interesting questions.
All of these limitations arise because the documentary was made for television. Undeniably hampered by his chosen medium, Stange has nonetheless managed to make a touchy issue the subject of a tightly edited, informative, and accessible documentary film. Children of the Left is a worthy beginning for any inquiry into the adult lives of red diaper babies.
(Editor's note: Children of the Left will also be shown at the Museum of Fine Arts as part of The New England Film and Video Festival on May 18 at 7:30 pm.)