As heads of Governments, NGOs, lawyers and doctors converge on the ExCel Centre today for an extraordinary summit, the Hollywood actress and campaigner Angelina Jolie arrives just in time to provide the fairy dust. Humanity can bear only so much policy – it deserves some beauty and charisma to sugar the pill. No one should doubt the star’s clout or commitment. When Jolie speaks, heads of state listen. She is a powerful voice on behalf of victims of war, particularly women. Her statement today is that the summit must answer the grievances of girls kidnapped in Nigeria, wives stoned in Pakistan and women raped in many war zones. “This sends a big message round the world, you see how women are treated as second class citizens and abused. This is to say: ‘No, you can’t and we will, in an organized fashion, come after you.’” For Jolie, 39, this is personal. “I will work on this for as long as I am alive. For as long as it takes. We must send a message across the world that there is no disgrace in being a survivor of sexual violence - the shame is on the aggressor.”
It is thanks to a remarkable partnership between the actress and the British Foreign Secretary William Hague that the issue of rape in war zones has such prominence. For students of politics and leadership, the method is almost as interesting as the topic. Politicians alone – with their poor standing on social media and their narrow processes cannot “shift the dial” on social change. But social change cannot happen without them. Legislation matters, Governments must be involved as well as “the people”. The summit today could be a template for how to tackle the big global issues.
Jolie is convinced that this coalition of players is the way to crack social injustice. “If this works, it can spill out into all the other crimes against humanity. I think this kind of summit is the only way to address these issues in a comprehensive fashion to get change and make a difference.” She is shrewd enough to understand the value of her power base. I ask her if she is likely to move into conventional politics and she says, politely: “If I felt I could effect change, I would certainly consider it.” But isn’t she in a more powerful position as a globally known actress and humanitarian? “It is certainly more unusual. It is interesting to be able to work with all sides in all ways and to work as a citizen of the world. I wouldn’t want that taken away.”
I note that Hillary Clinton’s autobiography – seen as presaging a presidential bid – is published today. Is Jolie backing her, or contemplating a role in her administration? She answers deliberately: “I shall be following every candidate.” By working with whoever is in power, Jolie can makes things happen. She is a beauteous version of Henry Kissinger, a superb negotiator in designer clothing. We meet in a central London hotel, where Jolie has hardly had time to unpack before the summit. This is trivial hardship compared to last time we met, in March 2013, on an RAF flight to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jolie joined William Hague to meet survivors of war rape and to flesh out a solution with the Governments of Congo and Rwanda. It was only after the trip that the media learned the actress had also undergone a preventative double mastectomy. I recall the unmade roads, and shuddering helicopters and asked what on earth made her do the trip at that time. Her preternaturally grey eyes fasten on me in surprise. “Honestly? There was no way I wasn’t going to be on that trip and certainly when you think of what those women suffer it was the least I could do." She pauses: “And in a way, it helped to heal me because any pain or discomfort or concern I had became secondary in comparison. You would be ashamed if you did complain about it.”
Later, Jolie made another bold decision. She kept quiet about her operation in the field, but later wrote about it when securely and privately back in LA. Once again, she refused to claim special privilege. “I do feel very human in my connection to others. I felt in that moment it was something I would have wanted other people to help me with.” She refers to her mother, who died of ovarian cancer at the age of 56: “To know I had this option and it could prevent me from dying young and leaving my children. It was something important to discuss and I have been so extremely grateful to women round the world who have in turn shared their stories.”
For some commentators, it was an awkward association. Here was a Hollywood woman voted the most beautiful in the world. How would it affect her image to have her breasts removed? Jolie, whose humanitarian work has made her appreciative of unexpected goodness, says that she was “pleasantly surprised” by the general reaction of the public. “I grew up in Hollywood, so I was expecting more of that silliness, I expected more surface judgement.”
In a way, her operation was central to the Jolie persona. She is both sex symbol and madonna. Her rebellious child star self has given way to a kind of overflowing maternal spirit, with unusual empathy.
She and her partner Brad Pitt have three children, adopted from Cambodia, Ethiopia and Vietnam, as well as three biological children. Jolie, slender as grasses and with a Disney delineation of features, leans across the hotel sofa earnestly. “Always since I can remember as a little girl, I felt that I wanted to adopt; as soon as I was aware that there were children in the world who needed families. It seemed a natural thing to do. It seemed so simple, if you were ready to be a mother and children needed a home.” “But I think like most people I went through not being sure that I was good enough to be somebody’s mother. And especially I take very seriously bringing a child into my home that I did not give birth to. Maybe there is even an extra responsibility, a desire to earn this child. Then when I went to Cambodia, it was one of those strange moments when I just knew this is what was supposed to be.”
An armchair psychologist might link the reverence for the maternal impulse with Jolie’s loss of her own mother: “I had a great mother,” she says. “It is hard to think I could ever be as good as she was. Her whole life was motherhood. Like every mother you hope you are making the right choices but I love my kids so deeply.” She says that because her children are “home schooled” they accompany her on some trips and she hopes will inherit “a bigger picture of life”.
I had wondered if Jolie departmentalized her life into “Hollywood” and “the world” but it occurred to me that her humanitarian work finds unseen outlets. In her latest film, the Disney Maleficent, loosely based on Sleeping Beauty, she plays a fairy who falls in love with a human. He is ordered to kill her by the king, but instead strips her of her wings. She is desolate and bitter.
Was this a metaphor for rape? “You are the first person to ask,” she beams. “I was wondering who would figure it out. I am so happy that you have. We were all very conscious of it, it was in fact rape, it was clear. She was with a man, she is violated and of course it is a Disney story but she goes through a period of losing herself and her femininity and her motherly qualities, then she is able to remember them again, in her case, because of a child.”
Rape is not opaque in Jolie’s directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, being shown at the summit tomorrow, Wednesday. It is explicit and brutal. William Hague’s Bosnian special adviser, Arminka Helic, credits Jolie with an astonishing grasp of her country and the consequences of the war in the early 1990s. By contrast, Jolie’s next film, which she has directed and is currently editing, is about the heroism of war. It is called Unbroken, and is the tale of an All American legend, Louis Zamperini, an Olympic winner, a World War II prisoner of war, a survivor, a Christian.
Was she deliberately scouting for a male role model? “Both my films have been war films. In extreme circumstances it brings out the worst and the best in human nature. In some ways, the films are not dissimilar. The unbroken strength of the human spirit, overcoming hate.”
Jolie says she intends to direct and write more and act less while continuing to “ fight the good fight” through her humanitarian work. She is particularly interested in the balm of dignity given to victims of war. She describes a refugee asking her for soap. “ The woman explained to me how it hurt her not to be clean. That she wasn’t the woman I saw. She was so ashamed. And it is so painful for refugees not to be able to give their children what they ask for – I cannot imagine having to deny my children.”
Today, Jolie will be among political leaders and ordinary women who have survived unspeakable horrors. She will be equally at ease with government statistics and personal anecdotes. The wild, tattooed Hollywood child turned global humanitarian crosses all boundaries. She is a one-woman soft power solution and William Hague’s chief weapon in executing change.