Vanessa Redgrave’s documentary Sea Sorrow is more a vanity project than a call to action.
I won’t soon forget Meryl Streep’s at this year’s Golden Globe awards when, upon receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award, she took the opportunity to call out then-President-elect Donald Trump for his offensive personal behavior and xenophobic political tactics.
In addition to delivering a dignified polemic fitting for the peerless actor, Streep also did a remarkable thing in her attempt to position the role of actors and celebrities in a greater political context.
In her words: “An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us, and let you feel what that feels like…we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy.”
This role of creating empathy is telling to the very function of Hollywood celebrity culture, the reason we respond more to a person because we’ve seen them on a screen – it’s their job to translate feeling.
Vanessa Redgrave is something of a British Meryl Streep, both in her acting accolades and her overtly politicizing of her profession. After sixty years onscreen (in which she has given stunning performances in Blow-Up (1966), Howard’s End (1992), and Murder on the Orient Express (1974), just to name a few) Redgrave is making her directorial debut at New York Film Fest, with a documentary called Sea Sorrow, a tirade against the United Kingdom’s complacency in the face of the current refugee crisis.
Vanessa Redgrave, now 80, was in person at the Walter Reade Theater for a talkback after the show, which didn’t necessarily clear up some of the issues within her work.
The greatest shock of Sea Sorrow comes about two minutes into the feature, when a young man, speaking fluent Italian, describes how he arrived in Europe after fleeing Afghanistan. He calmly describes how, as a child, U.S. soldiers inspecting his home shot his mother and father in order to have greater access to their investigation, and then shot at him from high above as he fled, unarmed to a friend’s house.
The young man has an ankle wound to prove it, and he goes on about the difficult and dangerous journey he then had to make, alone, to find safety in Italy, relying on about eight-thousand euros donated from family friends. Now at a home for refugees somewhere in the Italian countryside, he and a few others Redgrave interviewed wait for citizenship, and peace in their homelands.
This heartbreaking testimony is one of two occasions where Redgrave goes to the source of the crisis to further understand it. The rest of the film, which plays as something like a seventy-four-minute Amnesty International commercial, is mostly Redgrave and her friends in the British intelligentsia, talking about how sad and depressing the current immigration policy is, and hoping passively for change.
Vanessa Redgrave’s argument for the film is first made at a march she attends and film’s in London, where thousands turned out to march for an end to xenophobic immigration policy, and for Britain to pull its weight in aiding war-torn countries such as Syria and Afghanistan. While the documentary includes only a few stock images of these countries, and doesn’t go into the complex political reasons for the most massive displacement of people since the Second World War, it eagerly responds with outrage and determination to the catastrophe in much the same way as the march itself – hoping that one can make a difference simply by showing up. The documentary then is the less formal call to action than a celebration of that call, a strange pastiche of interviews, television footage, and personal memoir in which Redgrave portrays herself as a hero fighting against an ignorant and dismissive world.
Obviously, my judgment seems harsh, especially toward a British national treasure, and I get it; Vanessa Redgrave is an old and proud woman who is unabashedly trying her best. Expecting her first foray into filmmaking to be a miracle is a little much, and more importantly, any attempt to make a difference is vital in an issue of social justice as important and mistreated as this. For formal elements alone, it’s clear Sea Sorrow wouldn’t be appearing at film festivals were it not for its creator’s name power, but deference to Redgrave’s legacy has given her an extensive tour (it was a Special Screening in Cannes, and just showed in Athens before coming to Lincoln Center). But the format of a message always modifies the message itself, and in this case, the construction of Sea Sorrow puts an upsetting, or at least unreasonable spin on what I’m sure were very noble intentions.
For one thing, this is the first issue-based documentary I’ve ever seen to not advocate anything. There is no number to call or link to donate when the film finishes, and no organizations or methods of creating change are offered at any point in the screening. During the talkback, Redgrave mentioned thermal blankets (a visual metaphor in her piece; scenes transition by being superimposed on a crinkling gold fabric) recommending in passing that members of the audience should buy some and ship them to the United Nations “which is just down the street in New York.” Her film is nowhere near as concrete. When asked what the audience should take away, Redgrave said, “Really the film doesn’t have a message…what we’re saying to anyone who sees the film: this could be us.” And that’s true, the quality of life we happen to be born into is a major deterrent of empathy, and something none of us think about enough – one of the few moments when the script descends from tragic platitudes into statistical fact is to call out the nation of Hungary, who has refused to accept refugees recently despite displacing 200,000 of its citizens during the Revolution of 1956.
Vanessa Redgrave: “Really the film doesn’t have a message…what we’re saying to anyone who sees the film: this could be us.”
However, to make an issue-based polemic as a think piece has its own implications. It gives off the impression that just thinking about this matter is enough to disrupt the now-constant displacement and death of asylum-seeking non-Europeans. The least you can do in making a documentary is recommending a way to help alleviate the problem you’re studying, and the lack thereof gives an impression that Redgrave hasn’t done much research. You can count on one hand the number of refugees she talks to onscreen. But the film goes in-depth on the backgrounds and thoughts of some of her friends, like Lord Alfred Dubs, a Labour Party MP now campaigning for change (which the film doesn’t go into) on British refugee quotas.
“The film is addressed to myself as much as anybody,” Redgrave said in the talkback, “It’s an appeal to myself.”
Most notably, the film prefers forays into classical literature to address the refugee crisis, over talking to refugees themselves. Sir Thomas Moore is quoted at length, and the climax of the movie’s claim, the origin of its title, comes from a passage of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in which Prospero explains his exile to his daughter Miranda, which Ralph Fiennes dramatizes for us over green screen. There is liminal relevance to the plight of actual refugees here; both had harrowing experiences at sea. But exactly who is Redgrave appealing to that thinks obscuring facts in favor of dramatic performance is the best call to action?
In fact, Vanessa Redgrave acknowledged the personal in all this. “The film is addressed to myself as much as anybody,” she stated in the talkback, “It’s an appeal to myself.” The frustrating fact of this is that, while there are tried and true methods of inciting action, not everyone is entitled to make the same appeals. Asked why she didn’t interview anyone from the government who has thus far played a role in deterring refugees, Vanessa Redgrave said, “That’s a different film, I’m addressing everybody…One film doesn’t help everybody do everybody do everything.”
Preferring to distinguish herself as a campaigner instead of an activists, because “activists are active, and then they leave,” one can’t fault Vanessa Redgrave for her motivation and her passion on the subject, but Sea Sorrow is a strange example of a spokesperson become the keynote speaker, and a certain amount of strategy is lost that could have moved toward making a difference.
Like Streep said, actors have a duty to occupy their roles in service to “the act of empathy” but their work exists in depicting, in uplifting, and dignifying a cause that ultimately isn’t about them. In Vanessa Redgrave’s case, she not only propels the cause with her fame, she does the legwork, and the film becomes more dedicated to her than her refugees.