The refugee crisis is undoubtedly one of the defining social issues of our time, and a great many of the films playing at Cannes this year are set to deal with that very topic. Whether that be a supernatural superhero take like Kornél Mundruczó‘s Jupiter’s Moon or the deeply conventional, though stirring, documentary Sea Sorrow.
Sea Sorrow is, believe it or not, the directorial debut of a screen and stage legend, Vanessa Redgrave, the 80-year-old thespian famed for starring in the likes of Howards End and Blow-Up. Throughout her career, Redgrave has dedicated much of her time to humanitarian work and, as Al Gore has done previously (see An Inconvenient Truth), Redgrave looks to bring her message to as wide an audience as possible with the help of the silver screen.
Without the benefit of a clear central subject character, the documentary follows a slightly meandering look through the refugee crisis in Europe. Redgrave visits charity workers on the ground at the infamous “Jungle” camp in Calais, France. They explain the severity of the problem there and emphasise the desperate need for care and support required by the youngest and most vulnerable inhabitants. The director also focuses on the streets of London during a pro-refugee march, taking the time to speak to some of the demonstrators. These impromptu street-level interviews, conducted by Redgrave herself, are undoubtedly genuine, but they don’t uncover any particularly captivating voices.
In this regard, there are few new angles here, either in subject matter or cinematography. Shots of bombed-out buildings are tragically a dime a dozen at this point, and the footage in Sea Sorrow looks straight from the newsroom. That being said, the lack of poetry isn’t of great importance when the facts are so devastating, as visualised by the inclusion of horrifying footage from a refugee rescue boat, which sees bodies tumble over each other, scrambling aboard from an overcrowded inflatable boat.
There are other exceptions throughout the film. Lord Alfred Dubs, a politician for the centre-left Labour party in the UK (and one of the film’s producers), shares his own story of his Jewish father leaving Czechoslovakia on the eve of Nazi occupation. It’s an amazing tale and encapsulates one of the overriding statements of the film: that we must show humanity to these people because so many of us wouldn’t be here if others hadn’t done the same for our ancestors.
There are deviations from the to-camera interview form and they bring a welcome change of pace. Emma Thompson makes an appearance reading a letter Sylvia Pankhurst wrote to a newspaper in 1938 regarding two Jewish girls who were refused refuge by the British Government. Once again, however, Redgrave goes to no great lengths to experiment cinematically. Instead, this whole segment is shot with a single camera, with Thompson reading to viewers, as if on a stage.
There is a similar approach to an otherwise effective sequence that sees Ralph Fiennes and a young actress perform a scene from William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Fiennes reading Shakespeare is always a treat, and to have such weighty context only emphasises the power of those words and of that performer.
At least Redgrave and her team have a clear sense of where they want this film to go, and the educational purpose they wish it to serve via screenings in schools and elsewhere. While Sea Sorrow is cinematically stunted, it is clearly made with great passion and belief.