Skip to main content

A Conversation with Actress Vanessa Redgrave on Her Debut Documentary Sea Sorrow at the New York Film Festival

Vanessa Redgrave’s debut as a documentary filmmaker in Sea Sorrow is a plea for a compassionate western response to the refugee crisis.

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

Image placeholder title

Sea Sorrow reframes ideas that refugees are from a far off land.”

-- Vanessa Redgrave

About Sea Sorrow(From the NYFF)

Vanessa Redgrave’s debut as a documentary filmmaker is a plea for a compassionate western response to the refugee crisis and a condemnation of the vitriolic inhumanity of current right wing and conservative politicians. Redgrave juxtaposes our horrifying present of inadequate refugee quotas and humanitarian disasters (like last year’s clearing of the Calais migrant camp) with the refugee crises of WWII and its aftermath, recalled with archival footage, contemporary news reports and personal testimony—including an interview with the eloquent Labor politician Lord Dubs, who was one of the children rescued by the Kindertransport. Sea Sorrow reaches further back in time to Shakespeare, not only for its title but also to further remind us that we are once more repeating the history that we have yet to learn.

 (Still from "Sea Sorrow")

(Still from "Sea Sorrow")

The Documentary Choices

There are no definitive rules in documentary filmmaking and Sea Sorrow, which examines the historical context for the current migrant crisis, is no exception. A documentary can utilize the traditional three-act structure or nontraditional narrative format. Ideas can be presented objectively or subjectively. Documentaries can include stock film footage, still photographs, use talking heads, include the filmmaker in the story, employ live action, animation, dramatic reenactments, and voiceover narration or just have the subjects and images alone convey the narrative.

 (A young Redgrave in WWII)

(A young Redgrave in WWII)

During the World War II bombing of London, a three-year old Redgrave was sent into the British countryside where she was taken in by the town’s residents. Redgrave, on camera, recounts this experience intercut with still photographs of her during this time, referring to herself as an “internally displaced person.”

Redgrave’s nontraditional narrative also incorporates a combination of archival footage (including Eleanor Roosevelt introducing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948), still photographs, talking heads, and live action, as well as a dramatized extract from The Tempest performed by Ralph Fiennes and Daisy Bevan (when Prospero tells Miranda the history of their “sea sorrow” and how they came to be exiles on a remote island, the former seat of his power and prosperity). Actress Emma Thompson also appears in the film, reading from a 1938 edition of the newspaper The Guardian, highlighting rhetoric heard today.

 (Vanessa Redgrave at NYFF Press Conference)

(Vanessa Redgrave at NYFF Press Conference)

Press screening Q & A with Redgrave and her producer Carlo Nero

Redgrave stated that she treated the film as if it were a poem, and chose film as the medium to deliver her message because: “Film is one of the arts — although treated like a prostitute most of the time, but it is an art — that can help people communicate and get rehumanized.”

Redgrave continued by saying she hopes Sea Sorrow will help audiences have compassion for the displaced people shown in the film: “Do you realize how close we are? It could be us. What will we do if we are treated the way our country has treated other families? That can happen so easily and so quickly.” She continued: “Do people have imaginations? People don’t have time for imaginations. … Film, like theater, can. It doesn’t impose, it can help people stop reacting and start thinking.”

Sea Sorrow is indeed thought-provoking in its global glimpse into the refugee crisis, and it is personal. The film reinforces the major theme that history has repeated itself but it also poses the question to the viewer that perhaps today, given what history has taught us, that it will not be repeated.

More articles by Susan Kouguell
Get FREE Screenwriting Downloads

Check out all of Susan's Upcoming Classes!

Seven Weeks to Your TV Spec Script (NEW COURSE!)
The Fundamentals of Screenwriting: Give your Script a Solid Foundation
The Fundamentals of Screenwriting, Accelerated
Writing the Family Feature Film
Writing the Family Feature, Accelerated
Writing the Documentary
Writing the Documentary, Accelerated
Writing the Animated Feature
Advanced Film Rewriting
World Building: Crafting Screenplays Readers Can Step Into

Screenwriters University