In a new interview with Newsweek, Angelina Jolie comes off as thoughtful, caring, and deeply moved by her over six years of work as a goodwill ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She says as her film schedule brought her to places where refugees were suffering like Cambodia she started to learn about the dire situations that people were in and wanted to help however she could.
Angelina approached the UN herself and said that they were a bit incredulous at first, but gave her a chance to help. She she didn’t want pictures taken of her work with refugees and that it took her a while to allow photographers to come with her. She usually travels alone to the field with just a photographer.
This interview was pretty moving to me, and includes a very touching photograph of Angelina holding a 7 year-old boy tied to a tree. He was just three when he went missing in Dafur for two days while his village was bombed, and was never the same since. He now lives with his mother and four siblings in a refugee camp in Chad. His mother keeps him tied up so that he won’t run away or hurt himself.
Angelina said that there are always people who will criticize her, but that her work speaks for itself and she can’t let negative opinions keep her from helping people:
When did it occur to you that you could do something about this directly? Did people approach you or —
I approached them. I think they thought I was a little crazy.
When was this?
Six years ago. I was very nervous to call the U.N. agency at the time. I [was] considered a rebel in Hollywood. At the time I was also a bit of the wild child. So first I went to Washington [to the UNHCR office] and I sat with everybody there and said, “You know, I know you don’t know me. You might have heard things about me… And I don’t want to bring negative attention to your agency. If you could just help me, I’ll pay my way.”
I spent the next year and a half going to, first, two camps in Africa, and then Pakistan and Cambodia. And with no cameras and with no press and had the opportunity to have this great education before I spoke at all…. I was transformed in such an amazing way.
But you do have photographers following you now.
It took me a while to agree to do it. I guess I saw that so many times the picture comes before the knowledge and the substance and I certainly didn’t want to do that to myself or the organization. And also, I really just was shy. I was shy about sitting on the floor and talking to a woman and having a camera take a picture because I thought it was making less of my conversation with her. But… I was changed by the faces of the people I saw. “It is something that I am incapable of describing…those faces and that place and those people. And so I think it’s just—let the people speak for themselves through the camera. And if I can draw you in a little because I’m familiar, then that’s great. Because I know that at the end you’re not looking at me, you’re looking at them.
I think it’s fair to say people start out by looking at you, Angelina.
As long as they end up looking at them, that’s the point.
Do you worry about people who say this is celebrity tourism?
I don’t know if anybody saying that has spent the last six years of their life going to over 30 camps and really spending time with these people. I can’t care. At the end of the day, I’m sure a lot of criticism could keep a lot of people from doing this kind of work…
If someone had a direct criticism of my opinion on the issue, if someone had a direct criticism of the image shown because they think it hurts somebody then I will take that into consideration. But there are a lot of people that simply have an immediate gut reaction and they just don’t want to combine artists with foreign policy. And hey, I understand. I get it. I know where you’re coming from. And to each his own. … You know, I was more shy when I first went into a camp that other field officers would not want me there.
You were worried that you’d get in the way.
Yeah. That’s why I brought no media, it’s why I sat back. That’s why I just helped them load things. And if I felt that I was ever getting in the way, I wouldn’t do it. Because I do care about the opinion of the aid worker, I do care about the opinion of the refugee. I care less about the opinion of the person who’s never been in the field but has an opinion about celebrity.
Do you still go with so few people? I can’t believe you take no one with you…
I take no one. I [go] by myself on a commercial plane and into the field with my backpack….
When you got there, what were the people saying about their situation? There are several photographs with this boy tied to a tent pole, and there’s also another photograph of a group of women near some tents, and one of them has her ankles chained.
The first time I saw that in the camp [it was] obviously really shocking. They are people who are traumatized by the bombing [by Sudanese government forces attacking villages in Darfur] and by war. The old woman may have had some dementia before. The reality is there are one or two aid workers for every 2,000 refugees. The same with the doctors, the therapists. The basic need there [is] to just try to keep these people safe. To keep the tents up in all the sand storms, try to get the food distributed and basic health-care needs. The [chained] woman started to beat her daughter with anything she could find. She kept hearing voices of the people yelling at her. So she feels constantly under attack. I’m no therapist, so I don’t understand all the details. But when I did try to talk to her, she seemed pretty rational. But then she started aggressively telling me that I had to stop them from putting snakes on her. And for the people to stop yelling at her and for the bombs to stop dropping.
And the little boy?
The little boy was a normal 3-year-old [now 7] who disappeared for 48 hours after [his village was bombed]. I can only imagine what he saw. Sure he saw death. And when found, he was found in a state…
As a first reaction you want to remove [the rope]. But the mother, she has four other kids, she’s by herself. Therapists visit him, but if [he's] left alone he will disappear or bang himself. I talked to him for like half an hour and just kind of looked at him for a long time before he touched me and there was a little boy in there who was open to a kind sound.… There’s a normal little kid right there, but he’s got a look of fear. He’s nervous to touch. And you can feel that need for safety. The mother unfortunately can’t not go work for the other children and can’t sit with him all day long and hold him, which is probably what would do some good. But what he needs is probably some serious therapy. [There are] lots of children like him there. Lots of victims of war. [It's a] whole other thing that you usually don’t get to address because they have to be so focused on the basic needs of survival. These are the many other casualties of the kind of war that is happening in Darfur.
Angelina said she was distraught when faced with so much suffering, and that she finds it overwhelming at times. She said “The first two years I cried constantly like a woman does,” when the interviewer asked her about it.
She also said she loves it in her new hometown of New Orleans, and that it’s a great place for her children, but that much work remains to be done post Katrina.
To me, this interview is in contrast with her pre-pregnancy talk with Ann Curry. As rude as it sounds, I wasn’t too blown away by her Dateline Interview before she had Shiloh and she came off as a bit insincere to me at the time. It was likely that she was just defensive over all the speculation around her upcoming birth.
I was skeptical of her due to the contrast of her extreme wealth and the entire hotel she booked up in Namibia with the povery-striken people she posed with. There also were a lot of stories at the time about her heavy-handed security staff and head bodyguard Micket Brett beating the shit out of people and threatening their lives.
Her security goons continued their rough ways while she was filming in India, and after a highly-publicized incident at a school where anxious parents were threatened and racists insults may have been used, she seems to have pulled in the reins and to have put a stop to their thuggish tactics.
Now that Angelina’s security staff has calmed down and she’s been seen out at events and walking in New Orleans with her children and Brad, it seems like public opinion is favoring her again. After reading this article, I’m reminded that she’s only human and was motivated by a desire to protect her family. She does so much more for charity than most celebrities, and it seems that she also wants to protect the fragile people she truly seems to care about.
You can help refugees by giving to the charity Angelina mentions in her interview, SOS Kinderdorp.