‘Sea Sorrow’: Film Review | Cannes 2017

The political activism is emotional but unfocused.

Elegant firebrand Vanessa Redgrave launches a passionate plea for child refugees in her first documentary.

You can’t help being on Vanessa Redgrave’s side in Sea Sorrow, her passionate, first-person call for governments to come to the aid of the child refugees flooding Europe. Talking directly into the camera along with British Labour leaders and political activists, she tirelessly hammers the point that immediate action is required to admit minors into the U.K. and other countries before they’re caught up in criminality and human trafficking. Given the increasingly polarized times, the documentary’s strident tone and its refusal to soft-peddle the situation should gather consensus in the niche-niches where it will be shown, even if its scattershot lack of focus somewhat dilutes its final impact and appeal.

Calling on the support of like-minded celebs from Ralph Fiennes and Emma Thompson to peer Alfred Dubs and dramatist Martin Sherman, Redgrave fires a wide variety of ammo at those who want to close borders, build walls and keep immigrants far from their shores. She names no names, but conservative U.K. politicians and countries with aggressive anti-immigrant policies (Hungary, for example) are clearly in her sights.

Shot with undeniable intensity but rather less technique, the film has an uneasy lack of structure as it circles around topics and returns to themes over and over. One of these is the Declaration of Human Rights, which Eleanor Roosevelt proudly presents in archive footage from 1948, after the horrors of World War II convinced world leaders that inhuman events like the Holocaust must never happen again. Other declarations followed in Europe and in favor of the rights of children. Redgrave’s point is that these rights are being blatantly ignored in today's refugee crisis, with the result that children who have the right to come to England to be united with their families are blocked in detention centers and hellish camps.

One camp she visits is the infamous Calais Jungle in France, a tent city without water or sanitation where refugees hoping to find passage to England waited month after month, until the French government evacuated it last October. Rather than film the harrowing conditions of life there, Redgrave and politician Dubs describe their feelings of horror but also their admiration for the courage of the people who have made the journey that far. (Baron Dubs sponsored an amendment to the 2016 Immigration Act aimed at offering unaccompanied refugee children a safe passage to Britain.) Both of them come across as articulate and feeling people and carry a scene which otherwise offers little information.

Part of the problem for Euro audiences is the overload of journalistic images that appear every night on TV and preempt the film: detention centers, African youths camped out in remote Italian mountain havens run by nuns, the rescue of migrants aboard overcrowded boats off the coasts of Greece and Italy. Gianfranco Rosi’s partly fictional Fire at Sea is still the benchmark in this category, using delicacy and metaphor to make unforgettable points though set in a microcosm. Here instead we get a wider, almost political picture complete with numbers and statistics, marches and rallies, archive images of burned-out, blasted-out Syrian cities that are harder to assimilate, despite the filmmaker's evident passion.

Shot all over Europe, the doc ends with several poignant comparisons. One draws on Prospero’s speech to his daughter Miranda in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, beautifully delivered onstage by Fiennes. He describes how he was driven out of his kingdom and forced aboard a “rotten carcass of a boat” until being shipwrecked on an island. The film’s title comes from this play.

The other comparison is a more personal one, in which Redgrave describes her own childhood experiences during the Blitz, when she was sent to the country and watched Coventry burning. The nightmares it caused her are but a small reflection of the refugee children’s traumas, which Dubs calls “a state of shock."

Production company: Dissent Projects
Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Alfred Dubs, Ralph Fiennes, Emma Thompson, Martin Sherman
Director-screenwriter: Vanessa Redgrave
Producer: Carlo Nero
Director of photography: Andrew Dearden
Editor: Folasade Oyeleye
World sales: Autlook Filmsales
Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Special Screenings

72 minutes