Vanessa Red­grave: her fight for the world’s refugees and the best mo­ment of her life

In her 80th year, ac­tress Vanessa Red­grave turns di­rec­tor for the first time to ex­pose the hor­rors of refugee camps. She tells Juliet Rieden why we must help each other, the im­por­tance of cud­dles and the best mo­ment in her life.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

Vet­eran star of stage and screen, and one of Eng­land’s most revered ac­tresses, Vanessa Red­grave has been talk­ing around the clock. She’s us­ing her high pro­file and her pas­sion to chal­lenge us all to get a grip, get in­volved, show a bit of hu­man­ity and wel­come the world’s refugees.

Vanessa is 80, some­what frail (of body, not mind) and wracked with a bark­ing cough, but that is cer­tainly not go­ing to blunt her mes­sage. This is a cause she’s “bloody well go­ing to work for un­til the last minute. And the last minute may be very near,” she tells The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly with a glint in her eyes and a brief hint of a smile.

That spark fires up reg­u­larly as we talk for an in­tense and fas­ci­nat­ing hour about what seems to be the most vi­tal and pas­sion­ate cru­sade of her life to date.

Vanessa has long been a left-wing ac­tivist, reg­u­larly lam­pooned by her de­trac­tors as a “Cham­pagne Trot­sky­ist”, who de­lights in tak­ing on the es­tab­lish­ment in sup­port of the com­mon man and what she sees as the in­iq­ui­ties of the world. Yet this time it feels in­tensely per­sonal for Vanessa – there are lit­tle chil­dren’s lives at stake and her ma­ter­nal heart is break­ing.

We’re sit­ting in a cramped ho­tel suite in Syd­ney’s Dar­ling Har­bour with Vanessa’s 47-year-old son Carlo Nero (from her sec­ond mar­riage to Ital­ian ac­tor Franco Nero). To­gether, mother and son – Vanessa as di­rec­tor and Carlo as pro­ducer – have used “en­tirely” their own money to make a pow­er­ful doc­u­men­tary about the refugee cri­sis and the need to take ac­tion – now!

The re­sult­ing film – Sea Sor­row, named af­ter a line in Shake­speare’s

The Tem­pest – is sur­pris­ingly in­ti­mate and com­pelling. Far from be­ing a preachy polemic, it’s a wrench­ing el­egy, which rat­tles around your brain long af­ter the cred­its roll.

“It’s partly a med­i­ta­tion and then partly a ral­ly­ing cry, too, for peo­ple. If they care about this and see their hu­man­ity at stake as well, they might want to do some­thing, lift a fin­ger… And yes, there’s an el­e­ment of ur­gency about it, too,” ex­plains Carlo, who is >>

“The best mo­ment of my life was giv­ing birth to my chil­dren. All three.”

most cer­tainly a chip off the cam­paign­ing Red­grave block – Vanessa’s late brother, Corin, was also a long-time ac­tivist with his sis­ter.

In Sea Sor­row, as well as vis­it­ing refugee camps in Calais, France, Vanessa re­veals her own ex­pe­ri­ences as an evac­uee dur­ing World War II and her daugh­ter, Nip/Tuck ac­tress Joely Richard­son and her niece, ac­tress Jemma Red­grave – even her grand­daugh­ter Lily (Carlo’s daugh­ter) – all take part. Bri­tish peer Lord Alf Dubs talks mov­ingly about flee­ing Nazi-oc­cu­pied Prague on the Kin­der­trans­port as an un­ac­com­pa­nied six-year-old Jew who is eter­nally thank­ful for the safe haven he found in Britain, which al­lowed him to build a suc­cess­ful new life.

It’s a film Vanessa says she felt com­pelled to make. She has been work­ing for refugees for decades, but the impetus to make her di­rec­to­rial de­but was in­stinc­tive. “It was when I saw the life­less body of that baby, Alan Kurdi, washed up on the shore in Tur­key,” she ex­plains. The im­ages of three-year-old Alan, a Syr­ian of Kur­dish ex­trac­tion whose fam­ily was at­tempt­ing to flee war in a leaky in­flat­able dinghy to join their rel­a­tives in Canada, shocked the world. Yet, two years on, the refugee cri­sis is worse than ever.

It’s an is­sue ev­ery­one must en­gage with, says Vanessa. “What we’ve done is try and make a film to re­mind us that hu­man­ity is some­thing that we have to pro­tect or be­come in­hu­man our­selves.” It’s “our own re­spon­si­bil­ity”, an­nounces Vanessa, who has scant re­gard for the off-shore de­ten­tion cen­tres across the Tas­man in Aus­tralia.

“They’re con­cen­tra­tion camps re­ally. I sup­port all the Aus­tralians who are try­ing to stop that and get ap­pro­pri­ate wel­come – ap­pro­pri­ate mean­ing ed­u­ca­tion, health and jobs. Democ­racy is about equal­ity. I’d say to Aus­tralians, you know your grand­fa­thers fought in a war. What did they give their lives for?

“In my Un­cle Robin’s case, it was fight­ing Ja­panese fas­cism. He went be­hind the lines, as well as fight­ing on his ships and ended his life in the Pa­cific Ocean. My un­cle was a paci­fist when

he was young, I know. He was a young ac­tor. He didn’t dream of fight­ing. No, he had a very dif­fer­ent dream about how life should be, could be, but he be­came con­vinced that there was no other way but to fight. He threw him­self into fight­ing. That was for demo­cratic rights for every­body.”

Vanessa is on a tirade and she is not go­ing to stop. I tell her many Aus­tralian politi­cians ar­gue that the de­ten­tion camps are nec­es­sary to stop the boats and the peo­ple smugglers get­ting rich while they put in­no­cent and vul­ner­a­ble lives at risk, but she is adamant. “We see it as hor­ror, a creep­ing and mon­strous in­hu­man­ity. When you’ve got mon­strous in­hu­man­ity speak­ing through which­ever politi­cian, you can’t be­lieve they’re hu­man be­cause it’s in­hu­man to do these things.”

Carlo adds that the big prob­lem with camps and de­ten­tion cen­tres is the im­pact on a refugee’s men­tal health. “The shock of that dis­place­ment and the jour­ney, and all it meant to them is im­mense,” he says. “I think the defin­ing ar­gu­ment is very much not just ob­vi­ously to save lives, but try­ing to save peo­ple’s minds as well, their san­ity to some de­gree. Even though they will be scarred for life. At least do the best, so that some­how they can be men­tally re­ha­bil­i­tated to the de­gree where they can at least start to func­tion... ”

“And start to love life again,” adds his mother. Vanessa tells me that the best mo­ment of her life was “giv­ing birth to my chil­dren. All three

[her daugh­ter, Natasha, died trag­i­cally in a ski­ing ac­ci­dent in 2009]. I’m not al­lowed to pick and I wouldn’t al­low my­self to. I had three births which I trea­sure for ever.”

When she vis­its the camps, I ask her if she feels a ma­ter­nal pull to scoop up the chil­dren and take them home to safety. “No, if they haven’t got par­ents, I want ei­ther to re­unite them with their par­ents or re­unite them with rel­a­tives. But I cer­tainly want to give them a cud­dle,” she replies, with a chuckle.

“Peo­ple do need cud­dles. I know one of the first times I ever went off on a ven­ture, I asked [US ac­tor] Har­vey Kei­tel to come with me to Bos­nia with UNICEF dur­ing the siege [in 1993], and I re­mem­ber an an­swer he gave to a jour­nal­ist, which was that he felt that if ev­ery per­son in the world could be given a cud­dle, half the prob­lems would go away. I thought, damn right! There’s some­thing. What can I do? Give some­one a cud­dle. It sounds ridicu­lous, but it’s not.”

RIGHT: Vanessa Red­grave and her son, Carlo Nero. She met his fa­ther, Franco Nero, on the set of Camelot in 1966.

ABOVE, FROM LEFT: Vanessa with daugh­ters Natasha (left) and Joely on the set of Camelot in 1967. Vanessa and her brother, Corin, at an anti-Viet­nam rally in Lon­don, 1968. With Natasha (left) and Joely in 2000. Ac­tivist Vanessa leads a protest in Lon­don in 1966. Cud­dling chil­dren at the Eleonas refugee camp, Athens, in 2015. A scene from Sea Sor­row, show­ing a refugee and her child.

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