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OTI Online
Fall 1998

Emma Thompson:
The World's Her Stage
by Marilyn Stasio


"Acting is the ultimate luxury. Hard is going down a bloody coal mine or living in Somalia, or in a war zone. That's hard."


Emma Thompson was only 13 years old when Victor Jara died at the hands of the Chilean junta headed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. During the U.S-backed mili tary coup that overthrew the socialist government of President Salvador Allende, the troubadour-poet was jailed, and during two days of torture all the bones in his hands were brutally shattered. Jara was herded into the Stadium of Chile in Santiago in September, 1973, with thousands of other artists, intellectuals, and political dissi dents arrested during the military takeover -- and publicly executed. Although Thompson was a schoolgirl in England at the time, "I knew what was happening during the coup," she says.

Today, at 38 (the same age as Jara when he was killed), the actress not only remembers how the poet died, she wants to make sure other people do, too -- by making a film about his inspiring life and violent death.

Victor Jara didn't have to die to be a hero. A Dylanesque figure to Latin Americans, he wrote anthems to the poor, and his ballads celebrating the working man mocked the political establishment, the Catholic Church and the money-making classes. ("This guitar has no song for the rich," one of his songs goes. "It sings of the ladder we're building so that one day we will all reach the stars.") "He composed very simple lyrics honoring the revolution, the people and the social changes occurring in his country," said Isabel Allende, niece of Chile's assassinated president and bestselling author. "With one song he could express more than the media would say in a year or a politician could in a lifetime. His songs became weapons against the political enemy."

Thompson is holed up writing the screenplay for her as-yet-untitled film, a project she's discussed with few people. But her involvement in such an overtly political piece should not come as a surprise. She is an active supporter of such causes as Friends of the Earth, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and a political action group for the election of female candidates to political office in Britain. She has campaigned in England for Labour candidates and served on committees for various political causes in Central and South America. She was also an outspoken protester against the Persian Gulf war. "Acting is the ultimate luxury," she says. "Hard is going down a bloody coal mine or living in Somalia, or in a war zone. That's hard."

Thompson once remarked that she "likes human beings who have suffered. They're kinder." To those who knew him, Victor Jara was the kindest of men, and Thompson views his suffering and death as emblematic of the ruthless human rights outrages com mitted by the Chilean government dur ing Pinochet's dictatorial reign.

"I've been wanting to write this movie for some time," she says of the screenplay that is currently engaging most of her professional attention, and for which she has put several commercial projects on hold. While Thompson was too young to become politically involved at the time of the Chilean coup, she did so later. "I began campaigning for the Chilean opposition in sup port of the movement for restoration of democracy, and the ouster of Pinochet," she says. "Since then I have felt very involved with Chile and its people."

During a visit to Chile in 1988, when she was 28, Thompson began to focus in earnest on the idea of making a film that would dramatize the junta's inhumanities. But, according to at least one friend, she had become engaged in Chilean human rights issues long before that.

"Emma had some contact with Chilean exiles, going back as far as her time at Cambridge," recalls award-win ning British documentary maker Max Stahl, who has known Thompson since their college days. "When Emma told me that she was writing this screenplay, I was surprised that she was so knowledgeable about Chile. I can't recall meeting anyone else here in England who has ever heard of Victor Jara."

In Latin America Jara is still tremendously important, ~ says Stahl, who grew up there, first as the son of the British ambassador to El Salvador and then as a documentary filmmaker on that country. "Jara was a moving singer and a man of his time -- a combination of Elton John and Che Guevara."

To ensure the authenticity of her treatment of Victor Jara's story, Thompson is writing her screenplay in both English and Spanish, a language she says she's been learning specifically for this project. She isn't sure yet, but she is expected to also play the role of Jara's English-born wife, Joan Turner de Jara, a former ballet dancer.

The actress's Chilean project does not exhaust her commitment to socially responsible films. She is also involved in the making of Ming, a political thriller set in East Timor, a place many moviegoers would have trouble locating on a map. The former Portuguese colony, just east of Java, was invaded and forcibly annexed in 1975 by Indonesia, which has continued to wage unrelenting war on the tiny nation. Based on the experiences of Stahl, who co-wrote the screenplay and brought the project to her attention, and other journalists there, the film aims to dramatize the human rights atrocities that, over the past two decades, have claimed the lives of one third of East Timor's pre-invasion population of 600,000.

Thompson has agreed to take a featured role in Ming, playing an Australian woman, Melissa, who is transformed from a complacent housewife into a confirmed political activist during an eye-opening trip to Indonesia. In the film, Thompson's character makes her way to East Timor carrying a sapling that she has brought all the way from home to plant on the spot where her husband, a journalist, died. Impatient with the lies and misdirection fed to her by local political officials, she persists in her mission and eventually learns the true circumstances of his death: that he was killed at the beginning of the war by agents of the government of Indonesia's President Suharto.

The tale has its basis in fact. In 1975, five young Western television journalists were summarily shot to death to prevent them from getting their footage of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor out to the world. The man in charge of their murder was Yunus Yosfiah, then a 31-year-old major in the marines. (Today, in a classic case of a fox in command of the hen house, Yosfiah is Indonesia's newly-appointed Minister for Information, charged with monitoring the media.)

Sixteen years later, Stahl, who has reported from many hotspots, including Beirut and Chechnya, had his own near escape in East Timor. In 1991, he filmed a genocidal massacre -- the slaughter by Indonesian soldiers of more than 270 unarmed protestors in the Santa Cruz Cemetery in Dili, East Timor's capital -- and then, to avoid military reprisal and possible death, buried his film in a fresh grave. (Unlike the husband of the character Thompson plays in Ming, who was '"killed in a very gruesome manner," Stahl escaped arrest and was able to return two years later to dig up the evidence. His footage was the first proof of the massacre.)

"Thompson's role in Ming combines dramatic and comic qualities, and she will be very good in it," says Stahl. He felt Thompson would under stand both the comedy and the pathos of the character.

"She's a funny woman, a bit eccentric," Stahl says. "But that eccentricity reveals a courage, sincerity and imagination which normal people don't always possess. The very fact that she has managed to get into the country, after being banned for more than a decade, tells you something about her strength of character. That took a tremendous effort, but she's the sort of indomitable woman who, despite all the political lies and the bureaucratic red tape, has made it her business to find out the truth. She has a pretty good nose for when she is being lied to, and she becomes an enormous thorn in the side of major governments."

"Emma has a personal feeling for the role," says Daniel Stoecker, Ming's producer. "She has an interest in the film and a passion for the issues."

In the cynical climate of Hollywood, where self-serving stars routinely lend their glamour to every faddish cause that comes down the pike, Thompson's commitment to human rights stands out in refreshing relief. But then, she has always been forthright -- and remarkably inner directed -- about the professional and personal choices she has made in her life.

"I had no rebellious state," she says, "because my parents gave me so much freedom that I didn't need to rebel." Those unconventional parents were Phyllida Law, a classically trained stage actress who recently took top billing over her daughter in their film, Winter Guest, and Eric Norman Thompson, an actor and director who worked in children's television. Emma was 19 when her father had a stroke; he'd suffered from heart disease most of her childhood. In the four years before he died, she devoted herself to teaching him to speak again. "He was fantastically brave, one of the bravest men I ever encountered," she says emotionally.

Encouraged to find her own way, Thompson went off to Newnham College at Cambridge University with the idea of becoming a writer -- a career calling that reasserted itself years later, when she adapted Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility for the screen, winning both an Oscar and a Golden Globe award. While at Cambridge, she also devel oped a social conscience. She became "faintly radically feminist," shaving her head, co-writing and co-directing the first all-woman revue ever produced at the university.

"I had tremendous resistance to the notion of women as a kind of romantic ideal, as something to be wondered at, as something beautiful," says Thompson. "The thing I wanted to be was that kind of woman who could be strong and independent, but make people laugh."

Discovering that she had a gift for performing, Thompson combined her feminist sensibility with her comedic urge and became vice-president and leading female performer in Footlights, the legendary acting society that spawned such Monty Python stalwarts as John Cleese and Eric Idle. Thompson's comedic sensibility, which more than one critic has called "subversive," is firmly grounded in her feminist philosophy, with its wry view of an intelligent woman's place in male-dominated societies. Even in moments of dramatic crisis, the independent-minded characters she plays have the spark of wit and a droll, ironic edge. As one friend put it, she creates female characters "whose personalities begin with their minds."

This thinking-actor's actor electrified the Academy Awards audience when she dedicated her 1993 Oscar "to the heroism and courage of women" in the world. "I hope this inspires the creation of more true screen heroines," said Thompson, who speaks often of the need for "new writers to create roles where women are morally central to the story." Always, though, she articulates her views, and especially her unpopular ones, with verbal grace and intellectual wit.

"I get bored with women being marginalized," she told a reporter, apropos her performance as Margaret Schlegel in Howard's End. "It was one of the best women's roles I'd ever read," she said of that freethinking woman. She was morally very central to the piece . . . a complex, ambiguous, and fully rounded human being, and also somebody whose raison d'etre is communication and the desire to connect people to one another."

That description also fits Thompson. Having accepted the role in Stahl's film, she threw herself into researching the politics of East Timor. To that end, she began corresponding with Jose Ramos-Horta, the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who has been a leading force in bringing world attention to Indonesian oppression of East Timor. "I am not a filmmaker, but I believe Ming is a very beautiful, powerful and heroic story," he told OTI from his home in Lisbon, Portugal. "I think and hope that the world audience will be moved by this film. So much can be accomplished when ordinary people are moved by a story."

Since Suharto was forced out of office in Indonesia in May, Ramos -- Horta's expectations for the film have escalated. "I have high hopes that Max Stahl's film will raise further public awareness on the East Timor issue, and that politicians will then have to take public opinion into account in their defining of state policy on East Timor," he said recently. "I would very much wish this film to provoke an international solidarity campaign for the release of all East Timorese and Indonesian political prisoners."

Max Stahl would like to believe it could happen. But, he says, "I fear there isn't a great sense of roots in people's perspective on international events." In an ideal world, the projects that he and Emma Thompson are working on would have a direct and immediate impact on the social issues they treat -- as the literary movement of magic realism has had in Latin America.

"The power of these movements," he says, "is that they are not simply imaginative movements, but are connected to fundamental issues of social justice and national justice. The work takes on epic quality. Emma has chosen subjects that have that epic reach. It's what draws me to her work. It's what draws me and others to her."


New Yorker Marilyn Stasio writes for national publications.


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