Hammersmith & Fulham Council hosted the premiere of actress Vanessa Redgrave’s documentary Sea Sorrow on Tuesday night (6 December) – a film that focuses on the plight of refugees fleeing to Europe.
More than 750 people turned out to see the documentary which was screened at Hammersmith Town Hall. It was Ms Redgrave’s first venture as a director and was unveiled during a special screening, followed by a panel discussion and Q&A session.
Ms Redgrave chose Hammersmith Town Hall for the premiere following the council’s work to break the national deadlock preventing the vulnerable child refugees living in the Calais ‘jungle’ to reach safety.
“People in Britain want to help,” Vanessa said. “And we need to do the best we can no matter how large the obstacles. And they are large.”
Answering questions from the audience Ms Redgrave described how her ‘soul’ had gone into the film, before announcing she was making a personal donation for charities that have provided the only protection the children in the Calais ‘jungle’ camp received.
“The injustice is huge. But what I’ve heard here tonight is also huge,” she added. “This is a difficult time. But seeing everyone here tonight makes me feel like we’re ready to take it on. Thank you for coming. We must save the refugees.”
Watch a video clip of Vanessa Redgrave speaking at the event:
Refugee camp visits
Cllr Stephen Cowan, Leader of H&F Council, had also visited the Calais camp (at his own expense). Speaking to the packed hall he told how the children he met ‘had suffered horrendous trauma’ of torture, beatings and ‘unbelievable cruelty – with many having been raped’. He added: “Their only real protection was provided by the charities and the volunteers. They were the very definition of ‘lost children’.”
Cllr Cowan then paid tribute to the 40 council social workers who volunteered with charity Citizens UK to travel to the Calais camp and assess how many children the council could accommodate with foster carers. Those in the audience received a rapturous round of applause.
“We were the only council in the country to send in volunteer social workers. The professional assessments they carried out helped form the basis of an action taken by charities which forced the British government to relent and let 500 of the most vulnerable children come to safe caring foster homes in the UK.
“We’re very proud of our social workers and grateful for the quiet diligence they deploy to keep children safe here in our borough and now also those that have come from the Calais ‘jungle’ camp,” he added.
Vanessa’s Sea Sorrow
The acclaimed actress and local human rights activist directed and starred in the ambitious documentary. Sea Sorrow features her own tale of displacement as a child during the Second World War, as well as the experiences of refugees from other historic and modern conflicts.
Afterwards, Lord Alf Dubs, refugee campaigner; Andrej Mahecic, the UK spokesperson for UNHCR; and Martin Sherman, a playwright whose grandparents fled from the pogroms in Tsarist-ruled Ukraine, joined Ms Redgrave and Cllr Cowan to discuss the challenging situation for the 65million people who are currently displaced around the world.
Watch a video clip of Lord Alf Dubs speaking at the event:
Sea Sorrow, produced by Hammersmith resident Carlo Nero, was filmed in Greece, Lebanon, Italy, Calais and Twickenham Studios. The film focused on the present – but also looked at the history of how refugees in Europe have been treated, particularly the desperate plight of Jewish people attempting to flee the Holocaust.
Vanessa tells her own story beginning as a two-year-old 'evacuee' from London at the outset of the Second World War, later as a student volunteer helping Hungarian refugees, and concluding with her return to Lebanon to visit Palestinian three-year-olds in a refugee camp nursery school.
Lord Alf Dubs – who himself came to Britain as a six-year-old refugee from the Czech Republic on the Kindertransport – explained why he is passionate about his recent efforts to assisting child refugees in Calais gain their rightful protection in the UK.
“What has tipped the balance is public opinion. We as a country believed we should do something,” he said after the screening.
“It makes me proud to be living in a borough where we have a council that’s doing the right thing for humanity,” he added.
“Not many people in the country can say that – but we can in Hammersmith. Well done.”
Sir Peter Sutherland, who has been advising the UN General Secretary on international refugee protection, simply and forcefully explained in the film why European governments must not break the conventions on asylum for refugees.
Ralph Fiennes, Emma Thompson and Simon Coates contributed unique scenes for the refugees, while the valiant Juliet Stevenson recounted her nine months working for the Calais children, alongside Help Refugees, Citizens UK and Safe Passage.
In includes a scene from Shakespeare’s Tempest by Fiennes and Lord Dubs’ reflections of his escape from the Nazi occupation on the Kindertransport.
For more details on how to help refugees in the borough, visit the Hammersmith and Fulham Refugees Welcome Group website and the Hammersmith & Fulham Refugee Forum.