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.
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.