Amma Asante’s new film, Where Hands Touch, tells the story of a forgotten piece of history – the fate of black victims of the Holocaust. The director saw a picture online – a school photograph taken in Nazi Germany of girls aged 13 or so; a biracial girl looks out from the front row, her eye caught by something off camera. Nothing about the image made any sense to Asante. “She is a little girl of colour. She’s surrounded by what Hitler called Aryan girls, and it’s 1943. I wondered if she was still alive. Then, when I started to research, I realised all my assumptions were wrong.”
Up to 25,000 black people lived in Nazi Germany. Where Hands Touch is a fictional story about a 16-year-old biracial girl, Leyna (Amandla Stenberg), who lives with her white German mother and little brother in the Rhine valley; her Senegalese dad isn’t around. The film begins with Leyna hiding from the Gestapo, who have orders for her sterilisation. The family moves to Berlin, where Leyna begins a secret romance with Lutz (George MacKay), the son of a high-ranking Nazi officer, played by Christopher Eccleston. (It’s one of those films where English-speaking actors talk distractingly with foreign accents.)
Asante had assumed that being a person of colour in 1940s German would inevitably mean the worst: “Given what Hitler decided he was going to do to the Jews, what on earth must have he decided he was going to do with black people?” But the history she discovered was more complicated. When the Nazis made plans to exterminate every Jew on German soil, no official arrangement was put in place for people of colour. “There was a reason for that,” Asante explains.
The girl in the photograph belonged to a generation of biracial Germans born to white German mothers and black African fathers who were French colonial soldiers stationed in Germany after its defeat in the first world war, mostly in the Rhineland region (the Nazis used the term “Rhineland bastards”). “They weren’t teachers, doctors or scientists. They didn’t own property. They were relatively young and there weren’t the numbers to be a threat.” But Afro-Germans did endanger Hitler’s vision of racial purity, so they were targeted for compulsory sterilisation. “But you could survive the war if you didn’t meet the wrong SS officer,” says Asante.
Where Hands Touch has been more than 10 years in the making. The director intended it to be her second film, after A Way of Life, her Bafta-winning debut. But she was repeatedly told it was “too big” a film for a young director. It took a decade to get financed, during which time she made Belle, about an aristocratic 18th-century biracial girl and A United Kingdom, the story of the marriage of the future king of Botswana and a typist from Croydon.
Where Hands Touch is another historical piece, but Asante poured into it her fears that racism and bigotry are flourishing today. “We wonder about Nazi Germany and how it got that way. It started with language and scapegoating, and we’re using a lot of [that same]language today,” she says.
Last October, Asante was “completely stressed out” by the video that went viral of a white man racially abusing an elderly black woman on a Ryanair flight. “We can see a man on a plane saying to a woman: ‘I won’t sit next to you’ and calling her all the language under the sun. That person doing the name-calling feels completely emboldened doing it because that language is now normalised. It’s now fine to use it in a way that it was not 15 years ago.”
It’s the openness that scares her. “We’re in this unfiltered place where people are not afraid of showing their bigotry. They’re like: ‘It’s racist. Who cares? Yeah, it’s homophobic. Who cares?’ It’s very, very overt.”
It’s not that she believes we are sleepwalking into a Nazi-like era. “That was a unique, terrifying period that one hopes humanity will never find itself in again. But there are terrible situations that we can still find ourselves in that simply don’t need to happen. And I think it’s about awareness.” But, she says, she doesn’t believe that ignorance can always explain bigotry. “Some people are just born bad, right? There are intelligent, well-read people who don’t like people from certain groups. And you cannot say they’re ignorant.”
I have interviewed Asante before, around the time of A Way of Life. Then she was blissed out, enjoying every second of success as a newly minted major talent in British cinema. Three films later, she seems more frank, a little battle-hardened. Bashing through all those glass ceilings will do that to you, it would appear. “I think, as a film-maker from an underrepresented group, you have to become tough, because people are always going to be questioning, suspicious, uncertain. ‘Can she do it?’”
We meet at a central-London hotel. Asante is almost intimidatingly glamorous; in a black trouser suit and pointy heels, she looks ready for a cocktail. Instead, a builder’s tea sits on the coffee table – Asante doesn’t drink alcohol: “I’ve never been drunk. I don’t like the taste.” Every now and then, at home with her husband – he’s Danish; they commute between Copenhagen and London – she will have a sip of something. “But then I feel a bit different and I don’t like that feeling.” Is it a control thing? She nods. “I’m sure it is. I can’t imagine surrendering.” Her accent is half south-London, half cut-glass English.
Does she ever switch off? Asante shakes her head. “It’s bad. I learned that there are people who turn their phones off at night and I’m like” – she pulls a stunned face – “why would you do that. To sleep? OK, that’s novel.” An insomniac, she gets six hours’ sleep on a good night but can exist on three.
The work ethic comes from her family. Asante was raised in Streatham, south London, by her Ghanaian parents – her father was an accountant, her mother a businesswoman. One of only two black families on the street, they were frequently subjected to racist abuse. “We’d get shit through the letterbox, graffiti on the house, matches through the letterbox. My dad used to lay metal trays on the mat.” When she was 10, her dad, sensing her creativity, packed her off to stage school – “my mum thought he was nuts” – where she met her friend Naomi Campbell. A role in Grange Hill followed. Asante hated acting, but it gave her and entry into the world of film and television.
In 2017, she received an MBE in the Queen’s honours list. Having directed two films that challenge misty-eyed pride in Britain’s imperial past, was she tempted to politely decline? Asante nods. “There are so many people I admire who are black who haven’t accepted it, and some who have. But one way to change the discussions that go on at the table is to take a seat at the table. It’s a very personal thing and I respect everybody who has said no. But when you accept an award, it’s as much about your achievements and your blood and sweat as it is about those who are giving it to you. And I like Prince Charles. Shoot me.”
Asante’s next film is The Billion Dollar Spy, a cold war thriller about a real-life Russian engineer who passed tens of thousands of classified documents to the US in the late 1970s. It’s the kind of film – muscular, blokey – that women directors have found themselves shut out of in the past. “Someone like Steven Spielberg can do The Color Purple, the story of people who, in many ways, should be a million miles away from him. And yet he was allowed to tell those stories,” says Asante. “I want to be able to do that. I want freedom to tell the stories that I want to tell in the way that men traditionally have, and also as a black film-maker.”
Perhaps the air is clearer after #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite. As a director standing at the intersection of both movements, how does she see things? “Am I really feeling a difference? Not so massively in the UK. I am feeling it to a certain extent in America,” she says. “One thing that we have to be really careful about is box-ticking. We can all go in for meetings, but do those meetings turn into tangible productions? I think it’s going to take time to see, because development can take years. What I do know is, there is still so much work to be done.” Mostly she is looking forward to the time when she can do her job, rather than campaign to do it. “Because the reality is, I’m not a campaigner. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m definitely not a politician. I’m not an expert, I’m sure I get the figures wrong. It’s not my job. My job is telling stories.”
Where Hands Touch raised a few eyebrows in 2017, when the first image of the film was released, showing its two young leads holding hands; Asante was accused on social media of romanticising the Nazis. Did that upset her? She looks at me as if I’m mad. “Coming from such an unrepresented group, I’m used to not being trusted. There’s nobody I can point to and say: ‘A bit like what she did.’ Or: ‘Look at her box office hit.’ I exist in an environment where I’m constantly having to prove myself and have probably felt like that since I was 14 or 15, doing school exams.” Besides, she says, people are always rebuking women. “I saw a boy on the bus the other day telling his own mum off.”
Where Hands Touch is released on 10 May.
Main image: Photograph: Joseph Sinclair; styling: Holly Elgeti; makeup: Charlotte Wood; hair: Charley McEwen
Written by: Amma Asante
First published 03.05.19: