“I’ve never disrupted anything,” British stage and screen icon Vanessa Redgrave said with a mixture of surprise and mild indignation. “Why would you call me a disruptor?”
It’s a measure of the 80-year-old veteran’s long-standing commitment to political and social causes that it’s quite possible Redgrave really doesn’t see her formidable career as being anything out of the ordinary. But in the 50 years since her first Oscar nomination in 1967, for Carol Reisz’s black comedy Morgan, A Suitable Case For Treatment—followed by five more nominations and a Best Supporting Actress win in 1977 with Fred Zinnemann’s Julia—Redgrave has consistently challenged the public’s expectations of how far an actor will go to effect change, taking a particular interest in the field of human rights.
Indeed, just when others might consider slowing down the pace, Redgrave’s life has taken another unexpected turn: shocked by Europe’s refugee crisis, last year she stepped behind the camera to make a documentary-essay film about the subject, a hybrid mix of news reportage and spoken-word performance that she describes as “sort of a poem.” Taking its title from a line spoken by Prospero in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest—Redgrave notes that Prospero and his daughter Miranda are themselves refugees, forced into exile by his duplicitous brother—Sea Sorrow, which premieres in Cannes as a Special Screening, looks at the urgent crisis currently engulfing the world, speaking to aid workers, politicians and citizen activists while drawing intimate first-person accounts from the refugees themselves.
Redgrave is thoughtful, erudite and filled with compassion when discussing the project, although she concedes that brevity does not figure strongly in her considerable armory of talents.
“Any question you ask, I’m afraid you’re likely to get a long-winded answer,” she says with a gentle and rather British chuckle.
“It’s part of my makeup—I do beg your pardon.”
Sea Sorrow is the first film you’ve directed. Why have you left it so long? And what was so urgent about this issue that made you want to do it?
I’ve been acting. And why this issue? I think you can tell why. There’s so many wars causing so much destruction, and so many people are fleeing. Trying to find protection, trying to find a life, trying to live.
But why did you make a film? Why not a theater or TV project? You’d already done a stage presentation in London, hadn’t you?
It’s a very good question. The stage presentation was really just a fundraiser. And that went well. It was in a tiny theater we packed out, and we made a lot of money considering the theater was an 80-seat theater. We made £7,000, which was very good. Never good enough, obviously, but it was a good evening. We filmed it, and originally we wanted to make a film of the actual fundraising performance, but it segued into a film that was very different in my mind from what we’d planned. I began to have a feeling that this, maybe, could be a personal narrative. And then I got cold feet, because I thought, I didn’t mean to make a film about me.
My son encouraged me to continue to think of this as a personal narrative, because it could conceivably help people understand better what it means to be a refugee. In fact, while we were researching it, we found a poster in the Imperial War Museum, urging people to do their National Service, which the poster said was to take care of evacuees. Back then, evacuees was the name for people—children mostly, like myself—who’d been sent out of London to escape from the bombs. Masses and masses of children, huge-scale numbers. And the words on the poster are, “It could be you.” Yes, indeed.
In your director’s statement you say that this is a subject you’ve been aware of since the age of 11.
I was aware of a lot back then, from the point of view of a child who was evacuated during the war. We knew that we were mainly up against it, and I wanted to do my bit, and I think every child in the country wanted to do the same. My uncles and my father were all in the Royal Navy. One of my uncles, as a matter of fact, was drowned in the Sea of Singapore, having been fighting for the Royal Navy, behind enemy lines, Japanese lines, in the hinterland of Singapore. But anyway, at the age of 11 I understood that the governments comprising the United Nations— very few at that time—had made a declaration which they felt was the basis for preventing anything like the Holocaust, and the horrors of the Second World War, from ever happening again. Realizing that so much work had gone into a Declaration of Human Rights—this was really revolutionary to anybody, let alone to me, at age 11. And then followed the European Convention on Human Rights, and from there a pattern was laid in my life, which told me that there are laws that everybody needs to obey, and that will go a long way to preventing genocide, pogroms, and things like the Holocaust—the horrendous destruction of the European Jews.
The film takes its title from Shakespeare and references classical literature from Greek and Roman times. Why did that inspire you?
The approach in the film owes a lot to the fact that, culturally speaking, there’s a lot in our culture that begins with Greek poetry, that begins with Virgil and Homer. Well, one of them was Roman, but, still, that’ll do. The stories of the first refugees that I ever came across in literature— that lots of people ever came across—were in The Iliad. The escape of Aeneas with his father on his back, the Trojans, from their burning city, and the defeat of their kingdom and what they had to do to try and find safety. It’s a fascinating story and it includes drowning, which seems rather terrifying, of course, because it’s so real. They’re written about in a very real way. Just like the horrifying deaths of so many people who shouldn’t have ever had to get into these dreadful boats to try and get to safety. I hold our European government—and my own government—to blame.
You spoke to child-refugee rights campaigner Lord Dubs for the film. Do you know him well?
Yes. Needless to say, we’ve become close friends, because we’ve been campaigning now quite a long time, and will carry on campaigning. First of all, we’re still trying to get the children who have the absolute, undeniable right to come to this country because they have relatives here. Unaccompanied children, 18 and under, have the right to come here. I’m afraid every government in Europe, including the British government, won’t obey the law unless they’re forced to, i.e., by election. It’s very hard. It’s much harder than I ever dreamed when I was a child. I thought governments would obey the law. I didn’t dream that it wouldn’t just be very, very bad governments that wouldn’t obey the law, but it would be governments that are supposedly decent, good governments that wouldn’t obey the law. If you see, I’m being slightly ironic here.
Who else did you speak to? Did you travel throughout Europe?
Well, not only Europe, actually. My son Carlo [Nero, producer] went to Italy, to interview refugees being looked after by a wonderful orphanage that my husband [actor Franco Nero] has supported ever since I first met him, back in the ’60s. He collated those interviews. I was in Lebanon, though of course, that’s not Europe. I filmed there, and we filmed in France, a little bit. The rest, I think quite a lot of it, we got in interviewing on the Refugees Welcome march in London in September 2016.
How did your research affect you?
It’s normal for me. I’ve been everywhere, in the midst of war, goodness knows. It’s just how it is, but there you go.
How many times have you been to Cannes now?
Quite a lot. I haven’t counted, but quite a lot. The last time was last year, with Howards End [in Cannes Classics]. It was— I don’t think the right word is renovated, but, anyway, a marvelous and expensive piece of restoration work was done by a guy called Charles Cohen. Howards End badly needed it. Some films do. A lot of them, actually. I love being there. The first time I went was long, long ago with Morgan, A Suitable Case For Treatment.
What would you like the audiences in Cannes to take away from Sea Sorrow?
Hopefully, it will stay with them. That’s what would be nice. I’d like that.
And do you think you’ll direct another film?
Probably not. I’m 80. This is a one-off, I think.