Q&A: Angelina Jolie on Refugees and Fame

Angelina Jolie began traveling as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations some six years ago. She has visited the victims of violence in Africa, Pakistan and Cambodia—first as an observer in the background, then using her fame to draw attention to the plight of the helpless. The movie star spoke to NEWSWEEK's Christopher Dickey about her recent trip to a camp housing Darfur refugees in Chad, her response to critics of 'celebrity tourism' and why she and Brad Pitt like their current home in New Orleans. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What was your original motivation for working with the UNHCR, for doing these kinds of trips?
Angelina Jolie: I started traveling about seven years ago with film. I would go to places like Cambodia and hear about the many refugees in Thailand and hear about the land mines and hear about the history....I remember sitting up for two days straight and reading everything obsessively.  I read about the UNHCR and I realized it was an agency that I didn't know anything about: that they were taking care of 20 million people. ...  And I remember realizing that I couldn't understand how I had not known that my whole life.

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.

You still do that?
Yes, I just did that on my last trip.  I met the photographer there.

In the camp?
No, in the airport. We didn't even realize we were on the same flight.  We landed at like midnight and got up at like 5 in the morning to catch the WFP [World Food Program] plane [to a town near the camp].

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.

Do you despair?
Certainly, at times. The first two years I just cried constantly like a woman does.

Oh, like anybody does.
Yes, like anybody does, thank you. I couldn't really talk about the situation without being emotional. And I went through a period of just complete lack of hope. Just feeling like it was way too overwhelming and feeling like I wouldn't be able to make a dent. And then I went through a period of anger that smart, articulate people in power have not been able to answer these issues quickly and clearly and define ways of intervention. And that it just keeps going on. About a year ago, I got a lot of books on international law and I tried to study what was going on—just out of a curiosity about what was this bigger picture. I don't want to have to keep going back to camps, five different times, over the next 30 years of my life, [for situations] that there are no solutions for.

People will look at these pictures of you in Chad and ask, "What can I do?" What should they do?
There are great NGOs like SOS [Austria's SOS Kinderdorp] and there are great NGOs inside and under the U.N. that you could send aid to. It's important for the American people to know that a lot of people believe—I certainly believe—that it has been their outcry and their interest that has motivated our government. I think that the American people have paid attention to Darfur—a really amazing groundswell of people that really care, and are moved and emotional about the things they've seen when it is brought to their attention. 

Where would you take the spotlight next?
I want to go back to Cambodia. I would like to understand and see what I can find out about what's happening inside Burma.

You're living in New Orleans right now. Is that just because you like the city or because you wanted to bring attention to New Orleans, too?
A bit of both. Brad was doing a film here and so we were going spend a month here. [We] realized it was a place we liked, we liked the people, I liked the school for the kids. They're very diverse. I liked the other parents. I feel very comfortable with them. We're happy having our children here. Brad is working on rebuilding here.... But for me, just as a mom, I love the other parents and the kids and the schools. I'm starting to work on the education here and the school system here. There's a lot of work to be done.