Julie Christie: ‘I feared Bush would unleash a wave of sadism - he did’

The language of the war on terror made her shudder - and provoked her to become a fearless champion of its victims, notably the Guantanamo Bay inmate Binyam Mohamed. Robert Verkaik reports

Julie Christie has never felt comfortable in the glare of the public eye. For long periods of her life, the actress who rose to fame in Dr Zhivago and Far From the Madding Crowd has turned her back on the film world, hiding on a hill farm in Wales while others gratefully picked up the roles she spurned.

But even throughout these wilderness years, Julie Christie has never felt so dislocated from the world that she could ignore its horrors. Her campaigning record reads like a history of human rights abuses over the last 40 years.

This week she was back again highlighting Britain’s role in the alleged torture of a British resident held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In a letter published earlier this week, she accused the Government of duplicity and the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, of helping to cover up the crimes of America. Mr Miliband responded with his own letter, forcefully rejecting Christie’s allegations.

The resident in question is Binyam Mohamed, 31, an Ethiopian refugee whose lawyers have been trying to persuade the UK Government to hand over documents which they believe will prove Britain’s complicity in their client’s torture.

Christie says she knows she must come across as “disgruntled from Tunbridge Wells” but she feels “sick to the stomach” about what her own Government is doing.

“They should have released [the documents] ages ago. Binyam Mohamed was being tortured in 2002. In all this stuff that [Mr Miliband] writes, there is never any mention that unless they release the documents to clear him he is always going to be known to the world as a terrorist.

“That’s a life that has been ruined. You never hear about the human beings involved, there’s never any sadness or any remorse.”.

Although she would never say so, the emotional deprivations of her troubled childhood must make it easier for her to empathise with those who are taken from the bosom of their families and forced to survive in an alien environment. When she was six years old, her mother sent her away to a Catholic boarding school in England, her parents separated and she was left living with a foster family. The shock of this, she says, has never left her.

Perhaps then, this is partly why she feels she has to speak up for those who have no voice, like Mr Mohamed.

“It’s a terrible thing,” says Christie, “to make someone disappear. To have no contact with anyone. They are disappeared from life and it is just about one of the most sadistic things you can do. Especially to someone who has not been found guilty of anything.”

What seems to anger her most is that after spending years protesting against the injustices of other regimes she now finds herself confronting the rights abuses of her own country.

She asks: “Have we learnt nothing from the Second World War and the importance of the of human rights protections that we put in place to stop it happening again?”

The global response to an evil threat is one of the themes that is explored in her new film, 1939, which is directed by Stephen Poliakoff and also stars Romola Garai, Bill Nighy and David Tennant. The film follows the fortunes of an aristocratic family in Norfolk at the outbreak of the Second World War.

“It’s about the movement for appeasement by the English aristocracy just before the start of the war. I play an advocate for appeasement. She’s a fictional character so she’s not one of the Mitfords, but I think she is in that area.

“It is all about that possibility that was real [that appeasement could stop Hitler]. But of course if [the arguments for appeasement] had succeeded, people like Stephen [Poliakoff] wouldn’t have been around.”

Christie thinks that parallels could possibly be drawn between a policy of appeasement in the 1930s and the American-driven “war on terror” against al-Qa’ida.

“Yes I think in both it was lack of imagination, stupidity and ignorance. When I was acting my part I did not think like that, because as you know you have to love your part. I think she thought what had been done for Germany she would try to do for England.”

But it is the twin dangers of terrorism and the misguided “war on terror” that threaten the world today, says Christie, whose natural elegance and preserved beauty belies her 67 years.

“My reaction to September 11 was shock, anger and fear. The shock was obvious because of the amount of misery caused but also the stupidity. Because who suffered the most? The Muslim world. Then there was anger at the stomach-clenching media and government reaction without reason or rationale. It was as if their brains had stopped working. At this moment when they needed to be acting most sensibly, they were incapable.”

For Christie, one of the most chilling aspects of these developments was the new language that was created to give force to the “war on terror”.

“I felt something so terrible was going to happen when Bush came up with this phrase ‘unlawful combatant’. It meant that any terror suspect could be kidnapped, incarcerated, tortured and never brought to trial. I thought this is going to unleash a wave of sadism on a large part of the world – and it did.”

Appearing at last year’s Academy Awards ceremony, after her portrayal of a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s in Away From Her had won her an Oscar nomination for best actress, Christie wore an orange ribbon calling for the closure of Guantanamo.

“I went around asking people at the Oscars, do you know what “extraordinary rendition” means? Nobody did. I hate the phrase. What does it mean? It just means disappearance.”

For Christie, it has echoes of past human rights abuses which she had campaigned against so vociferously in the 1970s and 1980s.

“We have come across this before in South Africa under apartheid and in Indonesia in its awful war against the East Timorese. So we are not unfamiliar with it. And I had come across it more personally in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Argentina, where I had actually met people who had been tortured and met people whose family had been disappeared and whose children had been tortured.

“But I have to say that I never thought anything like this could happen in America or here. It was so stupid of me because we have had Northern Ireland [torture]. I had always liked to think there was something not English and not American about it all.”

Christie has been involved in protest campaigning since the early 1970s when she played a key role in the peace movement. She says her then-debilitating shyness left her a marginalised figure in the campaign against the war in Vietnam. That shyness was something that her former lover, the American actor Warren Beatty, picked up on when he described her as both the “most beautiful and the most nervous person” he had ever known.

“I was too shy. I had to get over that. Of course I went on Grosvenor Square march [in London] and all that. I went to a lot of demonstrations but I wasn’t as active as I could have been. I was too shy to have my opinion counted.”

She says that she partly beat her crisis in self-confidence by studying the issues that she wanted to talk about in public.

“I was against nuclear weapons and so I went to classes and learnt about the splitting of the atom. But I still couldn’t find the courage to stand on soap boxes or do anything like that.” It was a Chilean friend who finally gave her the confidence to take a more high-profile role in political movements.

“I was debating whether to be one of the people leading a peace march in Scotland with a famous musician, a communist and Robin Cook. She said to me ‘you have go and do it, to be a part of it’. And so I did. And that was the first political action in which I was seen to be at the forefront.” Naturally it generated a lot of press coverage and more of the many photographs of the Christie image that was already synonymous with swinging London.

“That was the first one and later I learnt to handle it and go on to do many more demonstrations. I also did a lot of public speaking which I found hard and which I don’t do any more, because I can’t find the words.”

The 1980s would prove to be Christie’s most active decade for political protest. “When I go through cuttings of that time, I think ‘good God I was busy, standing up for this and that and the other’.”

She candidly admits that she is not able to recall the 1990s in quite the same way. “I can’t remember the 1990s. Perhaps it was eco-stuff and animals. And of course the first Iraq war which got me going again.”

These days, Christie is less the suffering artist. She lives happily in the East End of London, travels around inconspicuously on public transport and is rumoured to have married her long-time partner, the journalist Duncan Campbell, at a private ceremony in India, the country of her birth. Christie, who has become a patron for the human rights group Reprieve, which is representing Binyam Mohamed and other Guantanamo detainees, appears genuinely embarrassed that she can’t stop herself being drawn to so many different causes.

“We are talking about something so very serious and huge and then we start talking about me,” she says.

“It seems terribly inappropriate. Perhaps it’s even egotistical to think like that, so you have got to think of yourself [as someone] who is representing something else.”

So why does she feel the need to speak out?

“I was sad when the outrage began to abate, except for Clive [Clive Stafford Smith, the legal director of Reprieve] and other lawyers and one or two newspapers who kept trying to push the thing. I think that sometimes we get deadened by something that is so awful and too big to believe. I think both American and British can’t believe that they are capable of this kind of thing. I think it is too easy to be quiet.”

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