Vanessa Redgrave visits Norwich for the screeening of her directorial debut

PUBLISHED: 17:14 08 November 2018 | UPDATED: 10:09 09 November 2018

Vanessa Redgrave

Vanessa Redgrave


As Vanessa Redgrave visits East Anglia for the 2018 Norwich Film Festival this Sunday, Nicky Barrell finds out more about her drive to shine a spotlight on the international refugee crisis.

Actress Vanessa Redgrave, wearing a white mourning band around her head as she joins the anti-Vietnam war protest in Trafalgar Square. She was among the speakers who addressed a crowd estimated at nearly 10,000.Actress Vanessa Redgrave, wearing a white mourning band around her head as she joins the anti-Vietnam war protest in Trafalgar Square. She was among the speakers who addressed a crowd estimated at nearly 10,000.

She is described by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams as “the greatest living actress of our times.” Indeed this formidable personality has always held centre stage – her birth on 30th January 1937 was announced by her father’s Hamlet co star Lawrence Olivier from the stage of London’s Old Vic theatre.

There was no pre-requisite to peruse or censor my questions although Redgrave was particularly adept at swinging the spotlight back on my knowledge of the refugee crisis spots across the globe.

The Academy Award winning actress had just one simple request for me; to ensure that the article encouraged people to go to the screening and ask questions about Sea Shadow – her directorial debut, which premiered in Cannes last year.

Redgrave shows no signs of slowing down – at the age of 81 she is still using her strong international profile and personal drive to fight for the rights of those who have been displaced by war, famine and other man-made and natural disasters.

Just the previous evening, Redgrave explained, she had joined protesters outside Chelmsford Crown Court in support of a group of anti deportation protesters whom she describes as “having a passionate yearning for justice.”

The group of men and women are standing trial under the Terrorism Act, accused of preventing a chartered plane containing asylum seekers and other migrants from Nigeria and Ghana taking off from Stansted Airport in March 2017.

I was immediately struck by the dogged determination to shine the spotlight on injustice which she credits to her upbringing and education. “The thing is I am alive and alert to what is actually going on in the world.”

And indeed along with this passion inevitably comes a degree of frustration about the lack of media coverage and awareness of the issues facing refugees – “Have you actually read about that? Do you know about that? Is your newspaper reporting that?”

Governments across the world - including our own - also come under severe criticism for what she regards as the constant flouting of the International Convention of Human Rights.

“Most Governments cannot be trusted. I don’t know whether I would call our Government a democratic government. When we leave the European Union there is no guarantee that it will obey the Human Rights Convention.”

“And in the Yemen for example there is no aid getting in. UNICEF has got international staff workers based in the country but the coalition is bombarding areas and preventing supplies getting in. Children are being killed in schools and on school buses.”

Redgrave’s scathing criticism cannot be unexpected from a woman who has devoted time to exposing human rights injustices both in her choice of acting roles and as a human rights activist – first coming to the media’s attention when she joined anti Vietnam protesters in 1968 outside the US embassy in London.

Awarded an Oscar in 1977 as best supporting actress for Julia - a film about a woman murdered by the Nazi regime in the years prior to World War II for her anti-Fascist activism -Redgrave’s acceptance speech praised the committee for refusing to bow to pressure for her pro Palestinian stance.

She has long campaigned about the treatment of inmates at the US camp in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, demonstrating outside the US Supreme Court in Washington DC in 2004.

Redgrave certainly places her money where her mouth is - putting up £25,000 of the £50,000 bail money to free Jamil el-Banna and paid £50,000 bail for Chechen separatist Deputy Premier and special envoy Akhmed Zakayev, who had sought political asylum in the UK.

Perhaps her childhood experience of evacuation fuelled her indignation on behalf of others displaced. “I was evacuated by my parents on several occasions to their rented house in Essex. My parents responded to the national appeal. The first time I was evacuated I was one and a half and I was sent with a nurse.”

“I don’t remember it too well as I was really young and didn’t exactly know what was going on. I have since read up about it in diaries. I just remember sitting surrounded by other children.”

Sea Sorrow covers the history of refugees in Europe since the 20th century was inspired by the photo taken of the Syrian boy Aylan whose body was found washed up on a Turkish beach.

The title is taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which Prospero urges his daughter to escape drowning at sea in a rotten boat. Recited by Oscar-winning actor Ralph Fiennes, the words ‘perfectly capture the tragedy of refugees fleeing war and violent poverty in their countries only to drown at sea,’ says the director.

Redgrave travels across France, the UK, Italy and Greece in a mix of documentary and drama to uncover the stories behind these headlines; talking to children, activists and actors.

Adding further impact to the story, the actress looks back at her own past as an ‘evacuee’ from London at the beginning of World War II and later, as a volunteer helping Hungarian refugees before concluding with a visit to a primary school in a refugee camp in Lebanon.

In shot after shot, Redgrave interweaves the past and the present to raise questions about protection and security in the context of human rights.

Awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 75th Venice International Film Festival, Redgrave has certainly managed to tread the boards of the political stage where others have dared not step.

The Q&A featuring Redgrave (subject to work commitments) is on November 11 at Cinema City. Tickets cost £10 and can be purchased via the Cinema City website.

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