Liv Ullmann -- an actress listens to her conscience
ONE day in 1980, a celebrated Norwegian woman with light blue eyes and reddish-blond hair walked down a dusty road to a Kampuchean refugee camp and was changed forever. It was the first of many journeys Liv Ullmann was to make throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America -- journeys that have since become the central focus of her life. In a talk with one of the world's most acclaimed film and stage actresses, who has in recent years almost abandoned her career to combat world hunger and poverty, an interesting question arose: Did her theatrical training in going deep inside another person's feelings sharpen her ability to feel empathy for the people in the troubled and impoverished countries she now visits? When she answers, Liv Ullmann turns the cause and effect in this question upside down.
``I think the reason for the choice of being an actress is interest in people: Who are they? What are they about?'' Miss Ullmann leans forward in her chair, her eyes searching her visitor's face, as if to illustrate the interest she is referring to. ``That's the reason to be an actress, and I think it's the same reason why one would sit with a woman from another country and be curious and want to communicate who she is or what I understand of what she is.''
Since she began this work for the hungry of the world, and in addition to starring in an occasional film or play, Liv Ullmann has written her second book, ``Choices'' (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, $14.95), a sequel to her best-selling autobiographical work, ``Changing,'' published in 1976.
The choices she examines in her second book involve listening to her conscience -- instead of to what others may expect of her -- as the directive for her actions. She writes in ``Choices'': ``I am learning that if I just go on accepting the framework for life that others have given me, if I fail to make my own choices, the reason for my life will be missing. I will be unable to recognize that which I have the power to change.
``I refuse to spend my life regretting the things I failed to do.''
It was while she was starring in the 1980 Broadway musical ``I Remember Mama'' that Liv Ullmann asked herself the question ``What am I doing with my life?'' And it was as a result of the caring of many in the Broadway community that her answer to that question began to change.
``The crisis of the Kampuchean refugees had been highlighted [in the news media], and then it wasn't highlighted anymore,'' Miss Ullmann recalls. ``Some Broadway artists came together and decided, `We want to collect money for them,' because there were great needs in the camps, we had heard. We got $200,000 by having collections in our theaters, and I was the one who was to give a check to the International Rescue Committee. And, well brought up as I am, I said to the chairman, Leo Cherne -- actually, I've dedicated this last book to him -- `If you ever need me, please call upon me.' ''
Miss Ullmann looks amused. ``I didn't mean anything with that, you know,'' she confides with a chuckle. ``That's what you say in Hollywood. But you don't say those things to Leo Cherne. He called me just after that and he said, `I read that your play is closing. We are doing a journey to Thailand, to the border of Kampuchea, to do a demonstration. We would like to go inside there with food and medicine, and I think you should come along.' So I went along, and to me it was a revelation.
``Not that I didn't know there were refugees and poverty and hunger, but I hadn't been close to it. I came from a world which was so confined and protected and the contrast was so enormous, and there was no way I could then go home and pretend it hadn't happened. So I started to do a lot of speaking engagements for the International Rescue Committee.''
The International Rescue Committee, with headquarters in New York City, was established to resettle, rehabilitate, and assist refugee victims of totalitarian oppression and war.
``Somewhere in there UNICEF phoned me out of the blue,'' Miss Ullmann continues. ``They said they needed a woman spokesperson. They said, `We'd like you to travel to a few developing countries. You can see our aid programs and learn about them and then maybe when you come back you will know whether you can talk about it or not, or [whether you] want to.' Again I was thrown out into an education and meeting with things I had never seen close before, and coming back I was ready to really start to be a social worker -- to stop completely with what had been my life before, because I found this much more important. I felt I could be useful. I'd learned so much -- I wanted to tell all the people about what I'd seen.''
What tangible evidence has Miss Ullmann seen in her travels through poverty-stricken areas to indicate that the work of these relief organizations is effective?
``Every place you go you will see miracle stories,'' she says. ``You will see the water pumps, and you will hear about the drought around that village before, and you will hear the mothers tell what they are doing with their day, now that they don't have to walk for four or five hours to find polluted water. You will see the women who have a workday maybe of 13, 14 hours, and when there is a kind of educational meeting in their community after the long workday they will come, they will sit, they will ask questions.
``And you will see the health workers. You will see how much three months' education can do when one is elected from the community and gets education in the very common health work. You'll see a doctor in Colombia at the poorest hospital in Bogot'a, San Jos'e, where the poorest mothers all had premature babies, some as small as 800 grams [28 ounces]. This doctor, Dr. E. Rey Sanabria is his name, used to have only one incubator. He always had to make a choice, whom to put in there. And one day he said, `No more.'
``He devised this very simple method which is now part of UNICEF's program, to take the naked premature baby, strap it to the naked body of the mother, put the clothes over the mother, and send them both home. The baby would still then be with the warmth of the body, with the heartbeat, the movement, everything it was used to, [with] free access to the milk. I came to this hospital, I saw these little, tiny babies and one just grabbed my finger -- it's a strong grip. That baby would have been dead earlier. And now, miraculously, in this hospital within one year the mortality rate went from 75 percent to 5 percent. Now doctors from developing countries all over the world are coming to study Dr. Rey's method. All the time you see these miracles. It's not big scientific things, but who said scientific things are what save lives?''
Obviously Liv Ullmann feels that the work of such organizations as UNICEF is effective in a long-term sense.
``Absolutely. The interesting programs are the long-term ones like health care; like education; like women getting job opportunities by [having] a sewing machine that enables them to create things of cloth and then sell them on the market; like fish ponds so you can start having your own place of finding food. Because it's not like we are talking about lazy people who don't want to work, and they're just sitting there waiting to get food. Give the tool, don't give the fish. Give the net, and the first fish, and that will just prosper. It's very fun and interesting to see what aid programs really are and how much thought is behind them. It's so much more than the simple feeding.
``It's also very important to say that if we cut down the mortality rate, statistically, we immediately cut down the birthrate. So the cold question people ask -- isn't it better to let them die, the population is so high? -- it's not true. These people will not have more children if the children they have survive. They have children because they have no trust in life.''
While it's clear that Miss Ullmann's work for the hungry is very rewarding to her, one wonders how she feels about her interrupted career as an actress. As it turns out, she is now using this career to serve her new activities.
``My profession is acting. That's where I earn my money, and that's where UNICEF can use me. Because I'm still working, I still have media interest, and that's when UNICEF needs me -- because in my media interest time I can talk about the programs of UNICEF and motivate people to give, not necessarily to UNICEF but to give to those who have the need.''