The actor opens up about why her divorce from Brad Pitt is a human rights issue, escaping Harvey Weinstein and what young activists have taught her
Angelina Jolie sits at a desk, back straight as a rule and rather regal. Her features are cartoonishly beautiful – straight black hair, vertiginous cheekbones, huge blue eyes and lips like a plumped red sofa. She is talking on Zoom to four young activists. It is a horribly apt day to be discussing human rights – the Taliban has just captured Ghazni city on its approach to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
If this were a movie, you might suspect Jolie was playing a divine leader addressing the fortunate few. Yet it soon becomes apparent that things aren’t quite as they seem. The actor and film director is the one in awe, not the activists. The young people talk about the work they have done raising awareness of the carnage in Syria, the environmental crisis, trans rights and food poverty. Jolie hangs on their every word. She tells them they have inspired her children who follow their work, warns them against burnout, apologises for the failings of her generation and says how honoured she is to meet them.
The next evening it is just Jolie and me Zooming. In the background I can hear kids playing. Our conversation is frequently interrupted by the ferocious roar of her rottweiler Dusty, who appears to believe he is a lion. It’s been an even more depressing day for human rights – the Taliban has entered Kabul and toppled the Afghanistan government. Jolie says the only thing giving her hope is the young people we met last night. “They speak about these issues with more urgency and awareness of what is morally right and decent than any politician, any diplomat, any NGOs I’ve worked with.”
She says she can’t stop thinking about Muhammad Najem, a 19-year-old who literally shouted from the rooftops about the Syrian regime’s siege of his home village, Eastern Ghouta. After his father was killed four years ago in an airstrike on the mosque where he was praying, Muhammad and his brother would wait for the daily bombing to stop, film the carnage from their roof and document the suffering of survivors. He and his family soon became government targets, and fled to Turkey from where he spoke to us. It wasn’t just his bravery that was notable; it was the warmth of his smile, his zest for life, despite all he has seen. Since we last spoke, Jolie has Zoomed again with Muhammad and a girl who is campaigning against period poverty. “His relationship to that teenage girl and her activism was more in tune than almost any man I’ve met,” Jolie says. We agree that cloning Muhammad may be the answer to world peace. “He is that evolved man!” Jolie says.
“Grrrrrrrrr!” Dusty roars, apparently in agreement.
I had an experience in the States with my own children and I thought… well, human rights, children’s rights
Jolie has spent 20 years campaigning for human rights, first as a goodwill ambassador and then special envoy for the UN high commissioner for refugees. She has carried out more than 60 field missions, invariably with notepad and pen in hand, bearing witness to people displaced by war and persecution in countries such as Syria, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now Jolie, 46, has written a book with child rights lawyer Geraldine Van Bueren QC and Amnesty International, called Know Your Rights, a guide for young people named after the Clash song whose title is also tattooed on Jolie’s back. The book lays out all the rights children have under the UN convention on the rights of the child, ratified by 196 countries, explains how to claim them and offers advice from young people who have done. Know Your Rights tackles all the big issues in a chatty, accessible way – from the rights to life, dignity, health, equality and non-discrimination, criminal justice, a safe place, freedom of thought and expression, privacy, peaceful protest, play and education, to the right to protections from harm and armed violence.
I ask Jolie why she has written the book. “I’ve met too many children who live with the effect of their rights being violated – displaced people, young rape victims. I couldn’t understand why they were still fighting for basic things that were their rights to begin with. It made me very angry. How are we going to solve anything if we’re not addressing that, right?” Her explanation is fluent and authoritative – and not surprising.
But the next bit is. “Then I had an experience in the States with my own children and I thought… well, human rights, children’s rights.” Suddenly the fluency is gone. Her language becomes disjointed and elliptical. “I remembered the rights of the child, and I took them out and looked at them and thought: well, these are for when you’re in a situation and you want to make sure there is support for the children in your life.”
She apologises, and says she can’t be more direct. “Then I found out the US hadn’t ratified the rights of the child. One of the ways it affects children is their voice in court – a child in Europe would have a better chance of having a voice in court than a child in California. That said a lot to me about this country.”
To be around all these young people who have a sense of fight and rebellion reminds me of who I was when I was younger
What happened that made her fear for her children’s rights. “I… I’m still in my own legal situation,” she stammers. “I can’t speak about that.” Look, I say, there has been so much nonsense written about you over the years, it’s impossible to distinguish between truth and fiction – you have to help me understand what you are alluding to. Are you talking about your divorce from Brad Pitt and the allegations you have made against him of domestic abuse? She tells me she is sworn to silence. Well, nod if you’re talking about the divorce and allegations. She nods. And did she fear for the safety of her children? This time she answers. “Yes, for my family. My whole family.”
It would be amazing, I say, to spend your life on the world stage, highlighting the abuse of children’s rights, and then discover that these same rights may have been compromised so close to home. “Often you cannot recognise something in a personal way, especially if your focus is on the greatest global injustices, because everything else seems smaller. It’s so hard. I’d like to be able to have this discussion and it’s so important…” She makes a couple of efforts to complete her sentence, gives up and starts again. And now the fluency returns. “I’m not the kind of person who makes decisions like the decisions I had to make lightly. It took a lot for me to be in a position where I felt I had to separate from the father of my children.”