Why Vanessa Redgrave Stepped Behind the Camera for Refugee Doc 'Sea Sorrow'

"In the film, I'm just trying to express my own anguish by expressing other people's," the screen icon, who recalls her childhood "evacuee" experience, tells THR.

After an astounding career as an actress, in which she has won virtually every accolade possible — including an Oscar, two Golden Globes, two Emmys and numerous Tonys and Olivier awards for her stage work — Vanessa Redgrave has decided, at the spry age of 80, to step behind the camera for her directing debut, the documentary Sea Sorrow. The film, which had its premiere in a special gala screening May 18, is Redgrave’s very personal meditation on the global refugee crisis.

Redgrave spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the film, which intertwines refugee tales both present and past, including her own story as a child evacuated from London during World War II.

This is your first film as a director. What compelled you to tell this story?

It was when I saw the body of that baby, Alan Kurdi, his lifeless body washed up on the shore. I’ve been working for refugees for years and years and years. And this town of Kobani [in Syria], where the Kurdis were escaping from, has been under siege from ISIS, Daesh, call it what you wish. They were escaping from ISIS. And I felt our European governments are responsible for the deaths of them and so many families because they didn’t apply their own laws on the protection of human rights. That’s why that little boy died. I don’t know, I felt a need to express sorrow.

Why did you decide with this film to go back to your own history, as well as the history of your country when it comes to refugees?

I thought my story, my experiences as a 2-year-old "evacuee" from London at the outset of the war, could be important. What happened to me as a child was very light compared to what happened to many children but … in Britain there are so many people who just don’t know our history. I thought maybe the best way to tell it would be to tell my history because it actually happened and because I think it would help explain to people why we have to help refugees.

How have attitudes toward refugees changed in Europe?

In Britain at that time, protecting refugees was a national duty. Now it’s a complete turnaround. Did you know half of the Syrian population have been removed from their homes, or they don’t even have homes anymore? Half the population. Eighty percent of the Palestinians who were in refugee camps in Syria have had to evacuate. These are really fearsome figures. But now, human rights are being steamrolled over by the European Union, and I’m including my own country in the European Union. With the exception of the remarkable [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel, no European government has obeyed the law.

How do you assess the actions of your own government and your Prime Minister, Theresa May?

Well, my own government is now being forced to do a few things that are right because of our refugee movements and organizations, which I support wholeheartedly. … But this film isn’t me getting on a soapbox. I don’t want to spend my last few, whatever it is, months or years on this earth giving speeches. This film is an elegy. It’s an expression of sorrow. Of a very specific kind of sorrow. Europe promised to help people who are fleeing war that they would find sanctuary. In my view, these promises mustn’t get broken. Principles aren’t something you hear much from politicians these days. Have you noticed? Right across the board, leaders, whatever the political coloring, avoid talking about laws, they avoid talking about principles. They talk about “our values.” But values can change and all our packets of “values” seem to be getting smaller.

The title of the film, Sea Sorrow, comes from a line in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a line Ralph Fiennes performs, as Prospero, in the movie. Why did you choose that line and that title?

Well, it’s just direct, isn’t it? People have died, in the sea. People are dying. And they shouldn’t have died. I mean, that calls for sorrow, doesn’t it? I think most human beings feel sorrow. But sometimes they get so bombarded with stuff coming over television, they don’t know what to think. I chose Shakespeare’s sayings from The Tempest because it profoundly expresses the fear and the terror and gratitude for providence if your life had been saved somehow.

This story first appeared in the May 22 Cannes daily issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.