Vanessa Redgrave: ‘This film will open minds to Europe’s criminal ways’

Spurred by the death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, Vanessa Redgrave joins her son, Carlo Nero, to bring the plight of refugees to the big screen.

By Helena Smith

Carlo Nero stands behind Vanessa Redgrave, his long fingers resting on her right shoulder as the camera captures the moment, a special moment, of mother and son in Athens. The Acropolis shimmers in the mid-afternoon sun behind them. “That’s it. No more barking today!” he jokes as Panos, the photographer, takes what turns out to be his final frame. In Nero’s hands, Redgrave jauntily agrees to conform. A timeless pose is struck.

But this is not theatre. Neither Nero nor Redgrave is under Hellenic skies to act or take in the sights. They are here to promote Sea Sorrow, their latest documentary depicting the plight of refugees who, forced to flee homelands through persecution and war, have landed on Greek shores.

Athens is on the whistlestop tour of capitals and cities that, in less than a month, has taken them to Lisbon, Nuremberg, the Greek capital and, this weekend, New York.

In content and feel, the 73-minute film, a cri de coeur, couldn’t be further from the embodiment in marble of the glory that was Greece. There is nothing humane about the civilisation the camera captures in Sea Sorrow, where ideals the ancients may have bonded with evaporate in endless frames of human devastation, displacement and loss. This is Redgrave’s directorial debut, her personal take on the global refugee crisis and, in many ways, an elegy.

It’s not the Coen brothers. It’s mother and son. There is nothing typical about it

Pictures of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian Kurd whose lifeless body was found washed up on the shores of western Turkey, prompted her to make the film; delving further, it became ever more apparent that European governments were in large part responsible for the countless lives the crisis has claimed because they failed to apply their own laws on protection of human rights. Greece, where she honeymooned in 1962, has a particular role and poignancy on the frontline of the drama.

“It was crying out to be made,” she tells me when we meet in her sixth-floor, Acropolis-view hotel suite the next day. Almost in the same breath, she says she won’t be making another.

“How can I explain? This film will last for ever. It’s a classic, and I know that sounds very boastful. I don’t mean it that way but it’s one from the heart. It will open people’s minds to think about the whys and wherefores ... about Europe’s really mistaken and criminal ways.”

It is also Redgrave’s first major work, at 80, with Carlo, the progeny of a fleeting relationship with the Italian actor Franco Nero, her co-star in the 1967 film Camelot.

The 48-year-old director-screenwriter is her youngest child and her only son. Since establishing Dissent Projects, their production company, over a decade ago, the two have worked behind the scenes from their base in London’s Twickenham Studios on a number of award-winning feature dramas and documentaries.

“It is an unusual collaboration,” Nero concedes. “It’s not the Coen brothers. It’s mother and son. There is nothing typical about it.”

Just as untypically, Redgrave reignited her relationship with his father, marrying the Italian more than 40 years after their first on-screen romance, on her 69th birthday in January 2006. “It was a big bash. My sisters thought it would be a good idea if I presented them with the ring.”

In a family of tribal love and loyalty, with many branches that crisscross, Nero is the least-known Redgrave. Unlike his half-siblings, Natasha and Joely Richardson, who also went into acting and, until Natasha’s untimely death in a skiing accident, had highly successful careers, he has preferred to remain behind the camera rather than in front of it.

After studying film, first in Rome and then New York, Nero moved to London with his Anglo-American wife, Jenny, and their two children, his son Raf now also venturing into the industry. “I was raised bicultural, which can be disorienting as a child, although you appreciate it when you are older ... I spent all my school holidays in Italy. I am very close to my father.”

Does he feel like a Redgrave? “Very much so. And given the various branches, and how large we are, we are actually close. We stay in touch and see each other. There is nothing of this half-sister nonsense. They are my sisters. I grew up with them.”

Sea Sorrow’s success has taken both of its makers by surprise. It has travelled so far and wide it has begun to take on a life of its own. It took more than a year to make the film. Shot on a shoestring budget in Italy, Greece, France and Britain, it is their biggest full-length feature documentary. “We’ve been asked to take it to so many festivals. The only limit is just trying to think: can I hold up under all the plane flights?” says the veteran actress, making her only reference to the heart attack she suffered in 2015.

When talk turns to collaboration with Nero, she lights up as she breaks into a smile and pronounces that, at times, he must have found her “infuriating”. “A lot of it [the film] was very joint because Carlo’s mind would either spurt on ahead or he would absolutely agree with what I was trying to say.”

The conversation zigzags this way and that. Frequently one interrupts the other to finish off a sentence.

“I liked film-making but the most difficult thing was the editing. I found it tormentingly difficult,” she admits, as Nero bursts in, saying: “As a student I followed the transition from celluloid film to digital and it was hard. I understand Vanessa. Sometimes we’d be in an editing suite and she couldn’t understand how certain things had to be done in order to go back to do the simplest thing.” Before he has finished she is chiding him, theatrically: “You mean harder for an old creature like me.”

Her son was the person she called when she had the heart attack. She is frail and he is unusually attentive. Under his watch – and with the enthusiastic applause of a full house when the film is screened before an audience of over 1,500 in Athens – she appears relaxed.

“She is amazing,” he says. “It is a wonderfully creative environment to work with her. She always has ideas, ideas, ideas.”

Carlo Nero: ‘My mother has never done anything because it was easy, to her great personal cost.’ Did they ever have ferocious arguments making the film? Though the documentary is very much “Vanessa’s vision”, Nero contributed with creative and technical advice. “Well, ferocious might be going a bit far. There was a lot of heated discussion at times, and contrasting views on how things should be done, but it was always constructive.”

Later he is quick to say the relationship wouldn’t work if he were simply passive. “I speak to her straight. It’s always loving, never nasty, but we don’t mince words.”

Redgrave is, of course, no newcomer to leftwing causes, with her passion for the underdog sometimes leading her into strange waters. In 1973 she famously joined the notorious Gerry Healy’s Trotskyite Workers Revolutionary Party. There are still many such causes that are dear to her heart – starting with the stateless Palestinians, “the biggest elephant in the room”.

She prefers to be called a campaigner, rather than an activist

“What critics never seem to think about is the great personal cost she has had to endure. She’s never done anything because it was convenient or easy. There was blacklisting and death threats; she’s been targeted for her views.”

But these days, Redgrave prefers to be called a campaigner, rather than an activist, and is just as ready to discard labels altogether. Words like “left” are so sullied that in a country like Greece, which has been “so abominably treated” on the frontline of Europe’s twin economic and refugee crises, they no longer have meaning. “It should be put on a sign and mud thrown at it.”

Ultimately, now, she wants to speak truth to power. In Sea Sorrow she uses her experience as a war child surrounded by evacuee children taken in by her own actor parents, Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, to make the point that, just as in Churchill’s wartime Britain, when it was seen as a national duty to offer such solace, Europe has a moral imperative to follow suit. Laws and conventions are invoked – including Eleanor Roosevelt’s passage through the UN of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by far the greatest feat following the second world war.

Where, I ask, does she find the energy? “All the things I could say, and which might be true, would sound so highfalutin’, I daren’t say them,” she smiles as Nero, once again, comes in to complete what she wants to say. “But there is a deep voice inside you,” he quips, hinting at the faith he shares with his mother.

“Yes, there is a deep voice inside me.”

“You might well call it God, but it is a force inside you saying you must do this.”