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Cannes Talk: Vanessa Redgrave on ‘Sea Sorrow’

Vanessa Redgrave’s glorious film career kicked off in Cannes in 1966 when she won the best actress award for “Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment,” directed by Karel Reisz. She is at the fest as a director for the first time this year with “Sea Sorrow,” a meditation on the current global refugee crisis; it also marks her directorial debut and plays in the Cannes Special Screenings section. Redgrave, 80, spoke to Variety about what prompted her to get behind the camera.

You’ve been a political activist for many years and campaigned widely for refugee rights, but what drove you to make a film about the current crisis?

I hoped that anyone watching this film could take in the subject and think about refugees in a way that perhaps hadn’t been possible for them before, because of the way the media reports their plight. I don’t mean media reports issued by Doctors Without Borders in France, which are fantastic, or by Emergency [another non-governmental org] in Italy. They are extremely proactive and have never hesitated to speak their minds and come out very firmly against every violation of human rights. But with a few exceptions the media have been absolutely dreadful. They’ve turned the word “refugee” into a word of abuse, which is terrifying! A film can open hearts and minds that have been closed, for whatever reasons.

The title is from a line in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” by Prospero who with Miranda has escaped drowning by being put in a “rotten carcass of a boat.” How did you make the connection between “The Tempest” and the plight of refugees?

Well, Mark Rylance invited me [in 2000] to play Prospero at the Shakespeare Globe Theatre we have in London. And he told me that the reason he asked me to play Prospero was because I’d always been very involved with refugees. Actually I didn’t play Prospero very well, I have to admit — and I’m not ashamed to admit it, I’m sorry to admit it — but I’m very glad to have performed the [gender-bending] role because it’s inside me, it’s not just a play I happen to know. “Our sea sorrow” is what Prospero tells his daughter of their escape from drowning at sea in a rotten boat. Sea sorrow is what another huge number of people have just suffered who drowned in the last few days on the shores of Italy.

The film quite touchingly shows your personal empathic connection to refugees, having been a two-year-old evacuee from London at the outset of World War II. In fact, it seems quite a personal film.

That thought came to me along the way, and then I thought: it can’t be about me! But my producer [her son Carlo Nero], who is a filmmaker, kept thinking we should include my own self here for all sorts of reasons. It opens a different door for people to walk through, would be one way I’d put it.

Besides being your directorial debut, it’s also the first time you’ve worked with Carlo Nero as your producer. How was that experience? How much did your son contribute creatively?

Carlo did the interviews and what you might call the prologue. And we worked in the editing room some of the time together and some of the time separately. He would come in to see how things were going. At one point I said to him: “Have a go at the rough edit of this section; let me see what you are talking about” and I saw it, and it was a huge help, even though I changed the whole thing. He was a huge help in me understanding what I was trying to do.


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