Vanessa Redgrave electrifies at New York Film Festival press screening


Rare is the press conference at the New York Film Festival in which the director is so candid in her speech that she disarms the press corps. Such was the case last Thursday afternoon when Vanessa Redgrave and her son, producer Carlo Nero, took to the stage after a screening of Sea Sorrow. In the documentary, which is about the many sea journeys embarked upon by desperate refugees (the footage all too familiar, mainly from Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea), Redgrave eloquently articulated the human compassion that sometimes only informs the subtext of other films about the issue.

A left-wing “campaigner” (the actress’ preferred sobriquet) for many causes over her lifetime, Redgrave has also been reviled in some circles, especially in 1977, after the release of a documentary short she funded, The Palestinian. At the time, Palestinian demands for statehood were on the rise, along with militant action against Israel. She rankled many in the film community a year later when, upon receiving a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as the eponymous anti-Fascist in Fred Zinneman’s Julia, she thanked the Academy for the award’s unspoken acknowledgment of the attacks she suffered at the hands of “Zionist hoodlums.” She was referring to the right-wing Jewish Defense League that bombed the theatre in Los Angeles where the documentary was screened, and where she was burned in effigy.

In Julia, based on a chapter in American writer Lillian Hellman’s memoir, Jane Fonda appeared as Hellman and Meryl Streep made her screen debut in a minor role. When Redgrave was honored by the Academy in London in 2011, both Streep and Fonda praised her. Streep said that like so many other actresses of her generation, she considered herself a “little sister” to Redgrave. In her speech, she recalled her one encounter with the iconic actress during production on Julia. Streep hardly spoke a word, as Redgrave praised Marxist Leon Trotsky, a man the recent Yale graduate had never heard of. Fonda, who named her first daughter Vanessa, called Redgrave her “idol,” and credited her with inspiring her own political activism.

Sea Sorrow begins with images of two Muslim refugees praying in a Roman Catholic sanctuary, and ends with a beautiful still photo of a seated woman sheltering her child, who is curled in the shadow of her lap. The latter, reminiscent of the many classic representations of Madonna and child, reflects back on the humanitarian effort apparent in the opening scene. After some brief testimony from refugees, Redgrave moves to footage of Eleanor Roosevelt speaking about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (ratified by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948), the core of her argument that the current treatment of refugees violates every tenet that appears in that document. Among others who appear in the documentary, British labor peer Alf Dubs, rescued by the Kindertransport during World War II, criticizes his country’s policies toward refugees. Redgrave vividly recalls the bombing of London, after which at age three she was sent by her family to the country for the remainder of the war.

Sea Sorrow also features a dramatic reading by Emma Thompson from the writing of British feminist Sylvia Pankurst, and a scene from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (from which the title of the documentary is derived), aimed at what Redgrave and Nero assumed would be their Westernized audiences. Ralph Fiennes as Prospero explains to his daughter that he was once a mighty lord before they were forced to sea, to seek refuge on their lonely isle. The idea that any of us could become refugees is reinforced in a particularly riveting moment when Redgrave quotes lines written by Shakespeare. They are from his revision of an unpublished play about Sir Thomas More in which the humanist attempts to spark empathy among anti-immigrationists of his era: “What country, by the nature of your error/Should give you harbour?”

With her magnificent voice, Redgrave transcends her rather unwieldy documentary in that scene, and in passages where she testifies directly to the camera about the refugees she has met. Her fiery personality was apparent in the press conference afterward. (NYFF curator Dennis Lim presided with great equanimity.) Fielding a question that compared her noble commitment to human rights to the lack of it in others in her profession, she said, eyes flashing, “I don’t agree!” Redgrave went on to criticize the UN and to describe her attempts to “re-humanize” politicians. The 81-year-old filmmaker gave full credit to her son, without whom she says she could not have made a documentary at all. In response to a question, Nero attributed his mother’s longevity as an advocate for human rights to her ability to act upon her emotions, especially on her empathy.

In a year when there was much grumbling among critics over the lack of press conferences at NYFF, fewer critics attended Sea Sorrow’s than, for instance, the press conference with Lucrecia Martel for Zama. While that one was notable for its intellectual air, Redgrave’s transformed the Walter Reade Theater in the way that Queen Elizabeth II might have had she suddenly appeared in our midst. (Redgrave is a third-generation member of a stage and screen acting dynasty.) A hush came over the theatre when Redgrave asked the audience, with the full force of her voice and its unusual evocation of pathos, if they wondered about the leitmotif of gold in the documentary. It is the color of space blankets given to refugees. “We were making a poem,” she says of the film, “what in the old days used to be called a dramatic poem.”

Then Redgrave suggested that “a few lives could be saved” if everyone in the audience donated blankets. While there is no doubt that her instincts as an actor allowed her to seize that moment, suddenly an artist, and the purpose of her art, were profoundly bound together. Impossible to deny was the deep well from which that sincerity and singular sense of resolve emerged. Had our warrior queen suggested we follow her into the park she and Nero discovered in Lesbos, to rid it of the pedophiles who were trafficking refugee children, we all might have dropped our pens and notebooks. Sea Sorrow may not represent the most skillfully rendered documentary screening at NYFF, but it is the most distinctive, as it is a baring of the filmmaker’s great heart.