There is a scene late in Sea Sorrow, Vanessa Redgrave’s documentary about the refugee crisis sweeping across the Middle East and Europe, where the director and actress directly addresses the audience. Throughout the film she has interviewed refugees, activists, a politician or two, and even fellow actors attempting to raise awareness on the plight of millions of migrants fleeing war, mass murder, and desperation for the West. But she also often addresses viewers herself, with little concern about the distance between documentarian and moviegoer, offering somber musings on this human tragedy—specifically within the plight of hundreds of thousands of children forgotten by much of the world while on a lonely camp in a lonely slice of jungle.
Too often, states Redgrave, this issue is viewed as a crisis for Western governments “but not the children.” These kids, who have been orphaned or even released by parents wishing for strangers on a foreign shore to show charity, waste away in tents despite the UN human rights treaty from 1989, Convention on the Rights of a Child, whereupon nations agreed on universal protection for those under the age of 18.
It is just one aspect of an ongoing nightmare which Sea Sorrow pinpoints in its better moments. And it is also what animated a very lively Redgrave, as well as her producer and son Carlo Gabriel Nero, during a press conference at the New York Film Festival Thursday.
“The film’s saying, and what I’m saying to myself, what it’s saying to me [and] anyone who sees the film, is it could be us,” Redgrave states while considering the compulsion to make the picture. “Do you realize how close we are? It could be us. What will we do if we are treated the way our country has treated other families?”
Indeed, one of Redgrave is a vocal supporter of Lord Alfred Dubs, a UK Labour politician and member of the House of Lords who’s been a champion for providing aid and shelter to refugees by bringing them to UK shores. After all, he and his Jewish mother only just barely escaped Czechoslovakia before World War II was officially declared—and Western powers turned a blind eye to Jewish refugees pleading to enter the United Kingdom or other Western states. Redgrave herself even relates the feeling of displacement and fear to her time as a child growing up during the Blitzkrieg bombings, and the need for British citizens to flee their own homes in fear of German bombs.
“That can happen so easily and so quickly,” Redgrave says of things falling apart. “Do people have imaginations? People don’t have time for imaginations. So that’s why film, because film, like theater, can help people stop reacting and start thinking.”
And her movie does that. Despite sometimes feeling more of a somber as a sermon, Sea Sorrow features disquieting moments of children clinging to ill-made life rafts, and trying to jump toward an Italian ship that only has enough room for less than half of the souls aboard the smaller crumbling vessel. It also opens with an Afghan refugee recollecting how he fled home when, as he claimed, American soldiers killed his unarmed parents during a raid of their home. He has lived in Italy for years since, saying his morning Islamic prayers beneath an Italian statue of the Christian Madonna and Child.
These elements can be jarring next to Redgrave’s choice of recruiting fellow artists to dramatically emphasize her own passions. There’s Emma Thompson offering a bitter reading of an actual letter-to-the-editor pleading for two young, accomplished Jewish women’s rights to stay in Britain during 1939 (they were denied); and there’s Ralph Fiennes providing a stern interpretation of Prospero’s final soliloquy from William Shakespeare’s play about other displaced people, The Tempest. However, it quickly becomes apparent that these inform the movie’s tonal individuality, because they really are Redgrave’s passions, and are as interconnected to her desire to help those in need as they are with her general worldview. Redgrave, who has had a legendary career on stage and screen, including roles in Camelot and The Trojan Women, Mission: Impossible and her Oscar winning turn in Julia, has led an electic life pulled in many directions–including toward those in need considering her lifelong relationship with the Committee of 100, the Workers Revolutionary Party, UNICEF, and other human rights-focused organizations.
When being celebrated for her long history as an activist during the NYFF panel, Redgrave corrects the statement by saying she’s a “campaigner.”
“Activists are wonderful people and they disappear, and the trouble is they’re all content, and others are content for them, just to be active and to not think,” Redgrave says. “And that can sound like an impossible contradiction, but believe me it’s very possible. I went through two periods where I was going to give up thinking and studying.”
In the here and now, Redgrave and Nero seem at least content to have this film out, if only so it can allow them to provide one more small spotlight on a catastrophe of human suffering that isn’t going away. Toward the end of the question and answer session, mother and son relay how they had just screened the film in a Greek festival, as Greece has been hard hit by the refugee crisis. While there, however, both heard harrowing new details, including the face of refugee trafficking in a nearby Athenian park.
“We heard a child, a boy who is 12-years-old, went to prostitute himself for €3 an hour with a client, and the client didn’t want him because he was too old,” Nero grimaces. “Twelve was too old. Younger is more expensive, but he was crying, this boy was crying, because this client wouldn’t take him for €3, and he was crying for the sake of his family. Clients wanted eight-year-olds or someone even younger… This was in the park at the center of Athens. This was happening literally next to people’s doorsteps.”
And when Redgrave and Nero discussed the issue with some local political leaders, they were told to understand that the government’s first response to such reports is “are they Greek children?”
“They get upset if they’re Greek, not if they weren’t,” Redgrave intones with quiet measure. “It’s pretty terrifying, isn’t it?”
It is, and Sea Sorrow offers one more documentation of another generation trying to help. Or not.
Sea Sorrow premieres at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 8.