SheCAN: Amma Asante talks Diversity, Career and new film “Where Hands Touch”

Toronto Film Festival Focus:  Now that summer is over we are bringing some of our print edition interviews online.  We are also soft launching a new section on our pages SheCAN spotlights the work, success, journeys and stories of women in the creative industries from emerging talent to more established voices, we also bring to focus some of the initiatives and opportunities for women across industries… we can all learn from each other.

“……as when I think of women of colour I think of dignity, I do not look at myself as a victim, I do not see my friends as victims, or my mother as a victim I do not see my grandmother as a victim. I think of them as people who have at times, with dignity had to negotiate very difficult pathways and have overcome obstacles, with triumph. That is all I know in terms of black women…”. Amma Asante

The British female director is boldly reshaping black histories with her innovative storytelling and an eye for a good story with historical context. In many places in history where people of colour have been eradicated and are invisible Amma Asante is bringing those stories to life. Her new film Where Hands Touch places the black experience and person of colour in Nazi Germany. Ahead of Toronto 2018 we were lucky enough to get her attention.

What was your first directing experience?

AA: My first directing experience was my first feature film A Way of Life and I had not directed before that and I had not ever not intended to direct, and certainly had not with that film. I was producing it and had written it and I was looking for a Director. It was one of the financiers at the BFI who suggested that I was the best person to direct my own material and they convinced me. They had to convince me, so I went in first feet into the water, well over my head to try and make it work and luckily it did.

Belle was a ground-breaking film with you as a Black female Director/Writer and a black female lead, did you think about the enormity of the project at the time?

AA: Belle came to me as a postcard, the person who is credited with writing the script had tried with the same producer previously to get a version of the film (not the version you see on the screen),  off the ground, a TV piece on HBO that had not worked out and contractually it had to be given a credit to meet the WGA (Writers Guild of America) requirements. When I got the project, I created a postcard and a conversation with my producer about what I might want to do with the true story behind that image. And so, what you see is what I created after doing the research. Having decided for myself I wanted to tell a story where a black female was front and centre. Where the piece developed by HBO did not have that element to it. It was a very different kind of story. I knew the kind of story I wanted to tell and knew the kind of challenges I wanted to explore.  One of the things that I said to the producer when I came on board was I don’t think any financier would finance the story I am trying to tell, and he said I might be surprised and I was proved wrong. It was journey of knowing what I wanted to create and having the structure around me to support me.

Why was it important to portray Belle as a strong character?

AA: With all the stories that I created that certainly have a person of colour at the centre and usually a woman and a woman of colour at the centre, well in at least two of my films, I have to place myself in the character’s shoes and for better or worse and I mean for better or for worse.  The character in my first film had very ugly behaviours, she had a slow learning curve. But with all those characters I had to place myself in their shoes as I am writing and ask who I would be if I did not have the class, the casting of culture and society and two good parents that raised me and guided me who might I be. If I did not have the privileges of those two good parents who might I be and if I was an uneducated white person who drinks who might I be. Similarly, I had to ask the same question if I were Belle and exposed to all the same cultural influences that any white privileged girl would have been exposed to at that time but I had all of the elements that were undermining me as a person of colour within that household who might I be and how would I respond and what would the nuance complexities be of that character. Putting myself in those shoes. I wanted to make sure that the nuances complexities of that character was in there. I think instinctively putting myself in those shoes, that I would have been strong, a way of protecting myself as when I think of women of colour I think of dignity, I do not look at myself as a victim, I do not see my friends as victims, or my mother as a victim I do not see my grandmother as a victim. I think of them as people who have at times, with dignity had to negotiate very difficult pathways and have overcome obstacles, with triumph. That is all I know in terms of black women. So, it was easy to draw Belle as a character who would not take nonsense and had questions to ask, she may not have been exposed to other people of colour or to slavery but that did not make her stupid. That did not mean she need not have an intellect that just meant that when she was exposed to it she was able to react to it and before she was exposed to slavery there was nothing to react to. I wondered what it would be like to be separated and shielded from the experiences of people who look exactly like you and what happens when you come across those experiences. Especially when you have an intellect and are not stupid. And that is how she evolved.

Tell us about your involvement with Toronto this year and the Share Her Journey project?

AA: I feel really really privileged and to have had 3 world premieres at Toronto and my next film Where Hands Touch will be my fourth premiere. With each film you must submit like everyone else and go through the judging process alongside all the other films coming in and I have been lucky enough to pass the process and get in 3 times before.

The first time that I was TIFF, it was really the first time I had seen my movie meet an audience I had never really screened my movie to the public before the world premiere. It was really my first experience of seeing what that was like as a writer/director and I just remember how I found that completely exhilarating. Ever since then I have always felt a real connection to Toronto, I always felt a real connection to the festival and I am always happy to take my film to be screened there allowing them to be the first real audience to see my work and when I say real audience I mean outside of industry. When I was asked to do a talk about the adaption of my third film A United Kingdom earlier this year, I agreed, and I was asked if I wanted to be an ambassador for Share Her Journey.

The freedom to be an artist as a woman is something that is very very important to me and as a person of colour and as a woman it is very important to me. Both those things, that interception was why I should say yes to this.

I am not massively politely despite the back drop to the films that I make but I do believe we have the right to be given the opportunity to try and be great and to shine. And when it comes to the arena of art and various areas of art and the fact that we are represented so desperately badly in most areas and in a particularly within the film industry is a problem to me. So, whilst I rather not be a campaigner as that is not what I went to school for. So, whilst I much rather not be political about any of this, I would much rather be at home coming up with more ideas, writing more scripts and shooting them. I feel I have a responsibility as someone who has a tiny bit of a voice and within the industry to try and cast a pathway forwards for myself and other women and particularly women of colour within the industry.

Can you tell about your new film Where Hands Touch, what is the premise of the story and why it is an important story?

AA: It is important on so many levels as it not a story that has been told, first and foremost the reality that there were people of colour in Nazi Germany at that time is a story that has not been told yet. And desperately needs to be out, our difference needs to be recognised. Also, I think it is important to understand it is in the point of view of another window into a story that we must all be aware of and must all never forget because of its historical impact. Also, it important to understand the impact that culture and education and society can have on all our minds, and importantly young minds, teenage minds.  The idea that we come from ourselves a marginalised society does not necessarily protect us always from being exposed to those same consequences, those influences. It is an important story to reminds us why we all must be aware, vigilant, why we all have to have our eyes open. And society is constantly filtering out messages that sometimes works for us and against other people, and it is for us to be aware and not to think just because we come from an environment where we have been harmed by messages before that we cannot be part of a group that would harm other people. The holocaust is one devastating time in our past and since then we have had other devastating times. We are moving in a world today within the West where it starts off with language, but you do not know where it is going to end. What seems like just not very nice language the consequences of where it may end is not always immediately apparent. When we are using the phrase never again it should not just be a phrase. I always think about the person who says I can’t be racist because I am married to a black person, there you go, actually that is not true as you know. So, remembering what happened can never be a bad thing.

Amma is an Ambassador for Share Her Journey

In 2017 the Toronto International Film Festival picked seven titles by female directors for its official selection of 20 films. Now, it’s launching a $3 million, 5-year campaign to support women in the industry. The campaign aims to “prioritize gender parity with a focus on mentorship, skills development, media literacy, and activity for young people. It is a movement that champions female storytellers, supporting TIFF’s commitment to increase participation, skills, and opportunities for women behind and in front of the camera.

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