Can celebrity activism actually make a difference?
When A-listers use their fame to support good causes, as Angelina Jolie did in London last week, they often stand accused of cynically trying to boost their own PR. But their backing can deliver real change, finds Polly Dunbar
WHEN JEREMY HUNT posed for photographs with Angelina Jolie at the British Film Institute last week, few could blame him for the look of slightly surprised delight on his face. For Angelina, however, meeting the Foreign Secretary and Sophie Wessex at the launch of a film festival honouring survivors of rape in war zones was all in an ordinary day’s work.
The Fighting Stigma Through Film festival, which featured film-makers from countries including Syria, Myanmar and Russia, was the first organised by the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI), which Angelina co-founded with former Foreign Secretary William Hague in 2012. Last week, it was also announced that on 28 December the actor will guest edit Radio 4’s prestigious Today programme, using her episode to discuss both sexual violence in conflict and the global refugee crisis.
It did not go unnoticed by the cynical media that Angelina’s latest philanthropic efforts have coincided with a new round of damaging headlines about her acrimonious divorce from Brad Pitt and their ongoing custody battle over their six children. Using humanitarian work to deflect from potentially reputation-harming personal crises is a charge that’s long been levelled at her, ever since she hired a ‘philanthropic advisor’, Trevor Neilson, to guide her support for good causes.
Celebrity activism has never been as popular as it is today. Every major star, from Leonardo Dicaprio to Kim Kardashian, professes to be passionate about human rights, animal welfare or environmental issues. For the A-list, becoming a UN ambassador like Angelina – a goodwill ambassador since 2001 and special envoy to the UNHCR, the UN’S refugee agency, since 2012 – is an essential badge of elite status, shared by George Clooney, Emma Watson and Victoria Beckham. But does the support of someone like Angelina really help?
According to Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon, Britain’s special representative for preventing sexual violence, the answer is an unequivocal yes. ‘ The scale of sexual violence in areas of conflict is truly appalling,’ he tells Grazia. ‘As co-founder of the PSVI, special envoy Jolie has used her profile to help raise public awareness of the stigma survivors have to endure, which compounds their suffering.’
Sexual violence in conflict zones is a cause the actor has worked on for many years, since becoming aware of the scale of the problem through her visits to refugees in countries including Bosnia, Congo, Somalia and Iraq. The UNHCR’S Marie-noelle Little-boyer emphasises that Angelina’s is no fleeting celebrity interest.
‘Her dedication to the refugee cause is quite extraordinary,’ she says. ‘Having undertaken more than 60 field missions, she can spend anywhere from several days to several weeks in the field. She’s known to spend many hours meeting with refugees, sometimes spending the entire day in their tents or makeshift homes. As a result, she has acquired an in-depth understanding of some of the horrors refugees face and has used her position to shine a spotlight on their plight and speak on their behalf.’
Such is the extent of her passion that, in 2011, she made a film – her directorial debut – In The Land Of Blood And Honey, highlighting the systematic rape of women in refugee camps during the war in Bosnia. William Hague admitted it was her film that ‘alerted’ him to the issue – further proof of the influence stars can wield.
The pair’s PSVI initiative promised to increase support for survivors and help end the culture of impunity that has allowed perpetrators to go unpunished. In 2014, they hosted a global summit in London, featuring leaders from 141 countries discussing how to improve the investigation of large-scale sexual violence during wartime. Then, last week, the film festival launch included the unveiling of the Murad Code to set the standard for investigating and documenting the crimes.
‘ We need to make justice the norm, not the exception, for these crimes,’ Angelina said. By making them the focus of international attention, it’s hoped governments will be pressured into taking concrete action against them.
Kathryn Cramer Brownell, author of Showbiz Politics, says the A-lister is a perfect example of how successful celebrity philanthropy can be when targeted carefully. ‘ The most effective celebrity activists really research issues, see some of the problems for themselves and think about ways they can use their fame to amplify some of the solutions,’ she says. ‘If they’re not informed, they risk misdirecting the public conversation around issues in ways which aren’t helpful.’
There’s no denying that activism can also be a tool for self-promotion. Eyebrows were raised, for instance, when Kim Kardashian seemed to climb aboard the humanitarianism bandwagon by visiting Donald Trump in the White House to lobby for prison reform. ‘Celebrities depend on public support, so it can be beneficial to their brand and, ultimately, their bottom line to show they care,’ says Brownell. ‘Ultimately, there will always be cynicism about celebrities adopting causes, but if they’re trying to use their public platform to make the world better, it’s a positive thing.’ To support UNHCR’S vital work with refugees, please donate at unhcr.org/uk/help
ANGELINA’S DEDICATION TO THE REFUGEE CAUSE IS EXTRAORDINARY
Right: Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt with Angelina last week. Left: she leaves the BFI after the film festival launch
Victoria Beckham is a UN AIDS goodwill ambassador. Below: Emma Watson is a UN women’s goodwill ambassador