Washington — When Liv Ullmann begins to tell stories about the plight of refugees she has met, the theaterful of wriggly children hushes up. She tells them about the hungry boy in the Cambodian refugee camp who told her, "Sometimes I cry, but only when it rains, so the other children will not see."
Then she says, "You and I can help wipe his tears away."
She tells about an African refugee camp where water is so scarce that "the women dig in the brown mud, and that's what they drink."
And she tells of visiting another camp where a little girl who owned nothing in life but a tiny ring with a red glass stone took it off and gave it to her for some child who needed it more.
Liv Ullmann tells the children these stories for a reason.
The Norwegian actress who became internationally famous through Ingmar Bergman's films is touring the world this year as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF.
It's as an ambassador, not an actress, that she appears on stage one Saturday morning at the National Theater here in Washington in a program for and by children. It includes the Suzuki violinists, Irish dancers, Nigerian dancers, and the National Children's Choir.
Her stories move the young audience.
When the program is over, and children are crowding into her dressing room, one little girl, perhaps remembering the story of the refugee child, steps forward and takes off a small silver ring with a heart at the center. "When you meet a little girl in one of those countries, who needs a ring, please give this to her," she tells the actress.
"They hear about refugees," Miss Ullmann points out later. "They hear about aid. But they don't even know" what the words mean, she says.
So she's explaining to them in a way they can understand.
"It's important to teach them the key words, because they are going to be the future. And their conscience and their ability to understand and feel compassion is sometimes much greater than ours." Maybe these children will speak to friends, will learn from the UNICEF booklets they've received what they can do, and will send a contribution to help the UNICEF aid effort, she adds.
"Their lives can take on a new activity . . . a good one, a giving one. . . . For many . . . it will not last, but it is . . . a good impulse."
After the performance and a press conference, Miss Ullmann goes on to a luncheon in her honor at a private home, where she talks some more about UNICEF between bites of boeuf bourguignonnem in aspic, followed by cheesecake with strawberries.
Today she looks very much like Alice in Wonderland among the grown-ups, with her long, golden hair flowing straight down her back, her open face, and wide, fjord-blue eyes. The dress she wears reinforces the image of Alice. Cut full like a 19th-century child's smock, it is of blue cotton patterned with small red and yellow flowers. With her cream-colored leather high heels, she is a tall Alice, but she still looks like someone a child could identify with. And she still sees childlike qualities surfacing in her grown-up world, as she explains in her 1977 best-selling autobiography, "Changing," which opens with a quotation from a Danish woman, author Tove Ditlevsen: "'There's a young girl in me who refuses to die.'"
Miss Ullmann then writes, "I live, rejoice, grieve, and I am always struggling to become grown up. Yet every day, because something I do affects her, I hear that young girl within me. She who many years ago was I. Or who I thought was. . . . Some mornings I decide to live herm life, be something other than what ordinarily is my daily role. I snuggle close to my daughter before she is awake, feel her warm, peaceful breathing, and hope that through her I may become what I wished to be."
As she tells children with upturned faces at the theater, "I wanted to do something else than acting that was more important," so she accepted the UNICEF ambassador's role that Danny Kaye and Peter Ustinov had filled before her.
Asked what she considers the single area of greatest need in her travels around the world for UNICEF, she answers, "At the moment it is obviously Somalia . . . together Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda, and a little country called Djibouti," all on the Horn of Africa.
"Although the need is enormous still . . . for the refugees from Cambodia, the world community has looked that way; aid has been given. I was there one and a half years ago, and I saw a terrible situation. . . . I went back half a year later, and I saw . . . that situation had turned into one of hope, because . . . aid had been given.
"But, even at the worst there, it was never as bad as the absolute starvation and lack of water I saw in Africa. . . .
"The two biggest rivers in Somalia, around which the two biggest camps are built, have now dried. . . .Since there are 70,000 to 80,000 people in each camp , and there are several such camps, you can imagine -- how do you transport water . . . ?
"There are people there who go without water now for a week. That's like horror stories from the desert. And on top of it, they don't have any food. They have nothing."
Yet the world community is not responding to the plight of the Africans "the way they did with the Cambodian refugees and the boat people from Vietnam," Miss Ullmann adds. "We [residents of the West] are going to be responsible for mass murder, because we are going to see that millions of people are going to die on the Horn of Africa.
"And, you know, your newspaper had such a wonderful article on what happened in Thailand with the Cambodian refugees, a really wonderful article. I wish the same article of hope would be [published] for the people of Africa. The numbers are so much greater. . . .
"It's hard for people to identify in the same way. . . . There were a lot of feelings of responsibility about the lives of the Vietnamese and Cambodians. . . . There is less a feeling of responsibility when it comes to the African refugees.
"So that is another thing we have to overcome.
"And the only way, really, is to present the people, who can give, with faces . . . so that they know they're not giving to somebody foreign, somebody different -- so that they know misery has no color."
As she talks about the tragic conditions in refugee camps, Liv Ullmann's face mirrors the shock and horror and compassion she feels at what she saw there. She has projected those emotions before, on film, in one of Ingmar Bergman's most devastating pictures, "Shame." In it Eva, the young wife she plays, survives a savage war that leaves the country desolate and its people refugees.
This time, though, the emotions are real. The anguish on her face as she talks about the refugee plight is of a different dimension from even her most celebrated film achievements: her long collaboration with Bergman in such films as "Shame," and "Hour of the Wolf"; the best-actress awards from three American critics' groups for "Face to Face"; two more American best-actress awards for "Scenes from a Marriage"; best-actress citations from Sweden, Italy, France, and Germany for various films; and acclaim for roles in Bergman's later movies "The Serpent's Egg" and "Autumn Sonata," in which she appeared with Ingrid Bergman.
Although she's had an occasional fluffy role, like that of the divorcee in the Hollywood romance "Forty Carats," many of the heroines she's played have been complex, strong women like the earth-mother in Jan Troell's two-part saga of Swedish immigrants in America. "The Emigrants" and "The New Land." Miss Ullmann received three citations for those Troell films, including an Academy Award nomination, to add to her slew of prizes.
In her native Norway she has received the Order of St. Olav from the Norwegian King. She was the first woman to receive the Peer Gynt Award, given by the government for outstanding work in Norway and abroad.
Liv Ullmann, whose face is eloquent in any language, speaks English fluently with the faintly rocking rhythms of her native land. Her voice rings out clear as a girl's at a brief press conference following the UNICEF performance. Someone asks her rather snittily what a mere actress can do, even with the help of media exposure, for such a cause.
"I think it's very important that people who do reach the media," she responds, "use the media for other things than talking about their measurements and future plans. And I think that more and more are doing this.I believe there are people who have more box-office appeal that could do [still] more in this way. . . ."
As for results, she says, they are impressive. "With the help of the media we raised $75,000 in San Francisco [in] one evening. One article in one newspaper in Chicago . . . gave us $60,000" in contributions.
"The media are enormously important. When we do talk shows, UNICEF gets so many checks. . . . The tendency is for 10,000 people to give $1 each," rather than one person to give $10,000, she adds, "because those who give first and most willingly are those who have very little, those who themselves are on welfare or social security, who write and excuse themselves and say, 'I don't have anymore, but I promise I will write and give when I have more.'
"There are others. I even had a man who had a Rembrandt and said, 'I will be happy to sell that and give the money [to UNICEFF]'; and a plastic surgeon who said, 'I will operate for free on all the [refugee] victims you tell me about.'"
The children's ambassador smiles as she adds, "I go to a restaurant, and people come to the table and leave $5 and say, 'Please give it to UNICEF.' Or they stand outside where you are, and they have their checks ready to give.
"There is such a willingness to give, but they have to be motivated, and the media is the only way they can know."
Miss Ullmann, who is also vice-president of the International Rescue Committee, has worked actively for several Cambodian and East African relief efforts in the United States, Europe, and Asia. She adds quietly toward the end of her press conference, "Why is it always [to solicit] aid for people, to help them stay alive, that we are . . . having fund raising? Why is there not fund raising, instead, for submarines and war planes that are used to kill people? There is something really wrong there. One day the opposite will happen: . . . people will have money to live, and the others will have to raise money for submarines and war planes."
The actress writes evocatively in "Changing" of her own childhood, her father's early death, her girlhood in Trondheim, her stage debut at 18 as star in "The Diary of Anne Frank," her early marriage to a doctor, which ended in divorce, and her stormy years with Bergman. Running like a leitmotif through her autobiography are her constant thoughts about her daughter, Linn, now 14, who is spending the year in the US with her mother. What is the most important thing Liv Ullmann can teach Linn?
"Well, I've found there are very few things you can teach children. Being with them is your way of trying to show them values, because very early now they want to find their own right and wrong. . . .
"They don't listen, don't trust authority the way we did. . . . I think the best thing I could hope for her -- and that I try to encourage -- is to trust her own integrity, to trust her own values. . . .
"What I'm scared of -- and the only place I set rules -- is where it comes to drugs, . . . alcohol, . . . things [that] might endanger her life, being places I feel are not safe.
"I wish I could teach her compassion, understanding, love for other people. But, you know, that has to come from within yourself. . . ."
We sit in a sunny dormer room splashed with blue and yellow flowered wallpaper. "It's a like a room from childhood," she says with pleasure. We talk about a film she admires, "Summer Paradise," directed by another Bergman disciple and actress, Gunnel Lindblom. In it there's a line to the effect that there are no more children, that society has taken childhood away from children. Miss Ullmann agrees:
"I think today children are losing their innocence much too early, very much because of violence and other things on TV and in films. Very much because society has turned toward -- and I'm talking about the rich part of the world --commercializing [childhood] . . . by fashions, by special toys . . . taking away the fantasy world of the child, the inner world.
"They don't play with swings. They don't make [doll's] clothes. They don't see fairies any more, because everything has become so realistic. Everything has become so frightening, because they know they are surrounded by war. And worst of all is the commercialism. . . .
"If Mozart had been a child today, he wouldn't have had a chance. No one would have respected him as the talent he was. He would have been put on a shelf which was that of a child. . . .
"The children of the third world find something that the others have lost, because at least they are still allowed to be children -- to show enthusiasm and laughter, although they have so very little to be enthusiastic about and to laugh about. But you can see when you reach for them, when you play with them.Their smiles . . . are still unguarded. They are still trusting. They are still allowed to be children.
"The terrible thing, to me, is that little [rich] part of the world that has nothing to live for," she muses, "while most of the world has nothing to live on."
"We are in many ways the underdeveloped ones, and you learn that when you come to the so-called underdeveloped countries. . . . Although they have little to live on, they have a lot to give. . . . I'm not romanticizing being poor; I'm just saying that we are losing -- the industrial world has taken away -- the innocence of childhood. . . ."
In addition to her unpaid job as children's ambassador, Miss Ullmann is dandling several other roles on her lap. Earlier this year she was one of four women to direct a short film, part of a longer Canadian feature, "Acts of Love." The various sections of the film are written and directed by celebrated women, including directors Mai Zetterling and Suzanne Cohen, writers Nancy Dowd, Edna O'Brien, and Penelope Gilliatt, and singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell.
In addition, Miss Ullmann is working on her second book, "Tides," which will recount some of her UNICEF experiences. "Changing," her first book, was like an impressionist painting, full of light and interior images, but not at all a photograph of her life. It has been printed in 25 languages.
"Tides" will have a quite different form, Miss Ullmann suggests, and part of the difference is in the nature of her subject. "The difficulty is that when you write about the third world you mustn't be preachy or critical. You mustn't make statements as if no one knew about it before. That is the difficulty: to find a form that is not offensive to anybody and at the same time is true to your experience. "And I know so many people have been there before, so many people have done so enormous much," says the woman who has done so "enormous much" herself. She raised $195,000, for example, from theater lovers for the International Rescue Committee after her trip to Cambodian refugee camps, over a year ago, traveling to Thailand on a "March for Survival" with a group of women who took 20 truckloads of food and medicine there to aid refugees.
In the last two months Liv Ullmann has also appeared several times on Capitol Hill, testifying before members of the House Foreign Affairs and other committees, urging them to support the Reagan administration's $77 million African aid proposal to assist victims of the famine there. "I have no understanding of budgeting or diplomacy or whatever," she told the congressmen. "I can only tell you that the suffering is enormous. If you met these people there is no way you could say it is not your business."
In addition to her work as ambassador, director, and author, Miss Ullmann is also planning to act this summer on a Norwegian-German film, "Jenny," to be directed by Per Bronken (whom she calls "the best director in Norway"), and later this year to act in another Bergman film. "He promised me a comedy," she says, but indicates with a roll of her eyes that it's anything but.
How does this woman who has played so many different parts see herself?
"I'm hopeful . . . impatient . . . vulnerable. I'm lacking in a lot of things I would like to be."
The film role that's most like herself, she says, is that of the wife in Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage" -- "but not the end of it. I didn't like the end of it."
Flicking back through a list of theater roles that includes O'Neill's "Anna Christie" and the Richard Rodgers musical version of "I Remember Mama," she concludes that the role most like her is Nora in Ibsen's "A Doll's House." Why? "Because -- very much -- that was my life," says the actress who slammed the door on her early marriage years ago.
But her all-time favorite role is that of the radiant wife in "The Emigrants." "I loved her," Ullmann says. "I can't say that's like me, because she stayed home and with all those children. Maybe deep down inside me that's what I picture, what I would have or should have done if things had been different. But I just loved that woman."
But hasn't she had it all?
"No, I'm not staying home and having many children and taking care of them. No. I'm not. But I liked her, and I liked some of her purity and sternness. I liked her a lot."