The sight of a Syrian toddler’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach was among the horrors that drove Vanessa Redgrave to make her directorial debut with a feature documentary about the refugee crisis, she said.
The 80-year-old Oscar-winning actor and political activist, has long campaigned for refugees, but the shocking images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi made her realise she needed to do more.
Determined to raise awareness of the plight of people fleeing persecution and poverty, death and destruction, she directed a documentary, titled Sea Sorrow, funding it herself.
“I just felt I must,” she told the Guardian.
Recalling tragic stories told by refugees and the squalid conditions in which they live, she asked: “Who else would have directed what I was seeing?”
Last week, she received the accolade of having the documentary selected for a “special screening” at next month’s Cannes film festival.
The international exposure of a screening on the French Riviera is crucial as the refugee crisis intensifies, Redgrave believes. She hopes that it will make us “welcome refugees”, warning that we stand to lose our humanity otherwise.
Sea Sorrow focusses on ordinary people like an Afghan former head-mistress whom Redgrave met in Greece. “She’d had to flee… The agony was knowing that, more than likely, she would be sent back to Afghanistan. That’s what’s happening to refugees,” she said.
Describing her documentary as “an elegy,” she focussed her camera on a tent daubed with the words “help us” and on a discarded plimsoll lying in the mud and debris.
While she did not mention atrocities carried out against westerners by extremists given a safe haven as refugees, she criticised the picture painted by some parts of the media: “Clearly, there is an agenda to pounce on any negative by a refugee as proof that they’re all potentially like that and they shouldn’t be allowed in.”
Redgrave is a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, whose Oscar-nominated performances include the lead role for Mary, Queen of Scots. She won the Oscar for best supporting actress for her role in the 1977 wartime drama Julia.
In making sense of the world, she has turned to Shakespeare and The Tempest, in which Prospero, the exiled rightful Duke of Milan and a magician, tells his daughter Miranda, how they escaped drowning by being put in a “rotten carcass” of a boat when she was three.
Redgrave draws parallels with three-year-old Kurdi, who drowned in 2015: “[His] family had fled from their village of Kobani, twice besieged by Isis, hoping that a small rubber dinghy could take them across two miles of water to the Greek island of Kos where they could claim asylum. I was horrified that this baby and his mother and sister had died because they could not find a safe and legal passage.”
Oscar-winning actor Ralph Fiennes appears in her documentary, reciting Prospero’s words which “perfectly echo the tragedy of the drowned refugees,” Redgrave explains. “Shakespeare gave us our title. ‘Our sea sorrow’, says Prospero.”
Redgrave’s son, Carlo Nero, the documentary’s producer, said: “In The Tempest, these are wealthy nobility and now they’re refugees stranded on an island. Shakespeare shows you that these calamities can befall anyone.”
In the film, Redgrave recalls the wartime role that her parents – actors Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson – played in trying to secure visas for Jews fleeing the Nazis: “[They] were among artists who, as always, do their best to try and help.”
“If you know the history, you’re horrified by how obdurate the Chamberlain government was. Scandalous on anybody’s terms and I’m afraid we’re in the same situation today.”
She argues that civil liberties enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights are being flouted: “European governments are not the only ones to ignore human rights conventions. However, my concern of course is European governments which include my own … I’m deeply worried.”
Source: The Guardian