In conversation with Vanessa Redgrave

“I didn’t choose the subject,” Vanessa Redgrave insists. “The horror is there for everyone to see. The subject is there for every single person in the world to see — refugees leaving villages, towns, pastures because of destruction, violence, war.”

Redgrave is discussing Sea Sorrow, her directorial film which debuted at Cannes film festival earlier this year and goes into general release at the Curzon this month. Produced by her son, Carlo Nero, it is a documentary essay on the refugee crisis, contextualised by the actress’s own experience of being evacuated as a three year-old during the second world war.

And it is the protection of children — or lack of it — that brings the film together. “Because a life needs saving,” says Redgrave, when asked again why she chose the subject. “Because young lives need saving.”

Sea Sorrow reminds us of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, through archive footage of the former first lady and UN delegate Eleanor Roosevelt from 1948, with Redgrave’s narration that the declaration was drawn up “so that the horrors of the Holocaust, of fascism, wouldn’t happen again”. The actress Juliet Stevenson is seen campaigning for the child refugees in the Calais camps in France, 178 of whom were legally entitled to be in the UK under EU law because they had relatives here, but only 50 made it — at the time — thanks, not to the government, but to the charity Safe Passage.

Vanessa Redgrave
Vanessa Redgrave

The underlying feeling is that this film should not have needed to be made. And yet the subject matter could not be more relevant or important. “I get angry with governments who put selling arms at the top of their lists,” says Redgrave, in a Choose Love sweater from the charity Help Refugees. “War is wrecking the lives of thousands of young children. But the law says they have the right to come to the UK.”

The film’s title is a quotation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, when Prospero tells his daughter Miranda about their “sea sorrow” — how they came to be exiled on a remote island. The passage is performed in the film by the actor Ralph Fiennes, while quotes from Sir Thomas More, attributed to Shakespeare, are used to ask “…whither would you go?/What country, by the nature of your error,/Should give you harbour…?” The scenes serve to ask questions about humanity; the refugee crisis could happen to any of us, to any of our children. Because what is happening now is nothing new.

It is no wonder, then, that Redgrave singles out Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 film The Search, as one of two to have “enormously” influenced her. It follows a young Auschwitz survivor and his mother as they search for each other across Europe after the second world war.“I realised for the first time that there had been lots of German children damaged and orphaned by the war. When I think about that…” Redgrave pauses, looking into the distance. “It occurred to me that there were children just like myself, who had been bombed and lost family.”

Interview by Ana Santi