If movie lovers were to guess which director would cause the most controversy in 2018, it’s a safe bet that Amma Asante wouldn’t be top-most in anyone’s mind. However, with her new film Where Hands Touch, the British filmmaker, who thus far has been celebrated for her sensitive portraits of star-crossed romances in period films like Belle and A United Kingdom, has done just that.
Asante’s Journey As A Filmmaker
Director Amma Asante explains that had Where Hands Touch been made when she originally set out to get it financed — when she was told it was “too big” for her to handle — the trajectory of her career might have been much different. Asante had received a slew of awards after her first film A Way of Life, a gritty, young adult drama with a paranoiac teen mother at its center.
“Without a doubt,” she said, “if I were able to make Where Hands Touch as my second film, which is where it was supposed to be, there would be no, Belle and there would be no A United Kingdom.” After proving herself to naysayers with both films, Asante has finally brought her first passion project to audiences. Where Hands Touch centers a controversial love story between two teens; one is Leyna, a biracial girl of African and German descent (played by Amandla Stenberg), and Lutz, a German Nazi (played by George Mackay).
The social climate would have been different had Where Hands Touch been released when it was initially intended, outside of the fraught political atmosphere which now frames it. Ironically, a film that germinated for so many years, including during part of the hope-filled tenure of the first black president of the United States — sees its release coincide with an alleged white supremacist in the Oval Office and incidents of aggressive, violent and overt racism and anti-Semitism on the rise. Millions of people of color now live with the very real threat of personal bodily violence being done to them in the name of racial, religious or ethnic hatred, and millions more are keenly aware of the threat of personal rights being taken away via the reversal of human rights and civil rights laws. It’s a consciousness that some will certainly bring with them into the theater. Whether fairly or not, because of the setting and characters, Where Hands Touch brings to the forefront how current, on-the-ground social conditions can impact how a film is ultimately judged.
Although film industry financiers had expressed a reluctance to have Asante direct the movie , they were impressed with the script she had written. It was widely circulated throughout the industry, and led to her being offered Belle in just one year. Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sam Reid, the Belle was based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a biracial woman raised by her uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, as a free person of color in 18th century England.
A watershed on a number of levels, Belle was a defining moment for Asante as a filmmaker.
“Belle came to me because the script for Where Hands Touch was known in the industry. Everybody was aware of the script I'd written about a biracial girl growing up in Nazi Germany. When the producer of Belle came back to England from America wanting to try and get that story told, he was directed to me,” Asante told Shadow and Act.
Even after the success of Belle, the powers that be were still telling Asante, who had been a successful child actress and started out in the movie business in her late teens, that Where Hands Touch was too ambitious a project. Her next film, A United Kingdom, came about because of her reputation as someone who could create a compelling, well-crafted period piece where an interracial relationship was a major element. Actor David Oyelowo approached her with directing this film, as it was his passion project.
Asante recalled the mental calculations she made at the time. “When David came to me, I thought about it — and I thought the best thing I could do would be to make this movie. It’s big. It’s epic, and there were things that I could bring to this movie to make it more relevant to an audience of color. I thought, ‘I am going to take this movie and prove that there’s really nothing too big for me. I’m a filmmaker like any other filmmaker,’” she said. “I found myself in a position where I was proving myself through telling stories that displayed my skills, which I would use for my passion project Where Hands Touch.”
After the success of A United Kingdom, Asante was almost at the point of being able to finally make it — almost.
“We were a little bit short. So I put in my director’s fee, and my producer added his producing fee, and that's how we made the movie,” she said.
Source: Vertical Entertainment
Where Hands Touch
Asante set out all those years ago to write the script for Where Hands Touch because of her personal fascination with the identities of black people in the U.K. and around Europe that were essentially erased from history, prior to the formal end of colonization in African and Caribbean nations.
“I realized there was black history on my doorstep [that] I didn’t know about. I wanted to know more people of color who had arrived in the U.K. before the ’60s. We kind of have this idea that everybody of color arrived in the U.K. in the ’60s, and I wanted to know who were we before that,” Asante said. “And what about Holland? What about France? What about Germany? How did the people of color to start to evolve in those countries?”
In the course of her research, she came across the term “Rhineland bastards,” a pejorative used to refer to black people in Nazi Germany, who were allegedly fathered by the Afro-French soldiers who occupied Germany’s Rhineland after WWI. Asante remembers being struck by a photograph she came across at this time.
“I found an image of this little Afro-German girl, who is at school or with other school children. And she's standing there with a little afro in her school uniform, and she's literally just surrounded by what Hitler would have called ‘Aryan, white girls,’” Asante said. “Her expression was unreadable. You couldn't tell if she was happy or if she was sad.”
Asante was haunted by the image, and often wondered what happened to the little girl in the picture. It isn’t a stretch to conclude the experience played a role in how she shaped the screenplay for Where Hands Touch, particularly in terms of the young adult, coming-of-age dynamic within the film. The main character, Leyna, is about 15 or 16 years old.
“I don't believe I could ever tell a story of on an adult black woman, who falls for an adult member of the Nazi regime,” she explained. “I think for me, the only way that I could tell the story that I was telling a story was for it to be about two young people. People whose minds are developing and who were discovering a sense of themselves.”
She did exhaustive research, even enlisting the assistance of a professional researcher to do the background work for Where Hands Touch. Interestingly enough, Asante didn’t come across any actual testimony from Nazis, who were repentant about their role in the war.
When she started her work, Asante didn’t want to speak to anyone who had been a Nazi sympathizer. “I was interested in the people who were not the architects of the Nazi machine, nor were they Oskar Schindler at the same time. They weren't the saviors and they weren't architects, but they were the people that allowed the Nazi regime to be functioning,” she said. What was important to find out for the filmmaker was “what did people know, when did they know, and what did they do about it when they found out.”
Christopher Eccleston as Lutz's father, and George MacKay as Lutz. Source: Vertical Entertainment.
The audience watches as Lutz travels this path in the course of the film. A passionate German patriot (as is Leyna), Lutz is eager to get into the army and actually start fighting. His enthusiasm falters after being assigned to help run a work camp, and he witnesses firsthand that war isn’t just about soldiers fighting other soldiers — not when the war is being led by a megalomaniacal sociopath and his minions, anyway.
“The film asks questions about citizenship and personal power, and what it means to be a citizen of a country. And one of the questions [the characters face] is if they have the option to do nothing,” Asante said. “For someone like Lutz, when he finally understands quite clearly what his country is asking of him — his country is asking him to kill fellow citizens — the question is where does his moral compass lie?”
Romantic storylines, even when shocking, tend to eclipse other storylines in a film, and the one at the heart of Where Hands Touch between Leyna and Lutz is no different. However, there are also strong storylines about Leyna’s relationship with her younger, white, half-brother Koen (Tom Sweet). After being recruited as a Hitler Youth, he sits next to her at the dining table, donning his swastika emblazoned armband, creating an uncomfortably tense moment for viewers.
Perhaps the strongest and most interesting relationship is between Leyna and her white mother (expertly played by Abbie Cornish), who acts as the moral touchstone in the film.
“I would say, to me, of equal importance in this story is the mother-daughter relationship, and it’s that relationship to which the title Where Hands Touch refers,” Asante said. “Despite that connection, for many viewers, the relationship between Leyna and Lutz will still sit squarely and jarringly at the center of Where Hands Touch.
“This is a story in which the love story is there to express the Holocaust. The Holocaust is not there to express the love story,” the filmmaker said.
The film begins during 1944 in Germany, a full 11 years into the Nazi program designed to “sterilize impure Germans.” Leyna’s biggest hurdle is to produce falsified documentation that states she has been sterilized, ensuring her safety whilst preserving her reproductive ability; for it is her personal right in addition to being an act of resistance. For Asante, it was important to show that, as a non-white Christian, Leyna’s preeminent concern was controlling her reproductive capacity.
“I wanted to show Leyna as somebody who was a champion,” Asante said. “What Hitler had planned to do with biracial children was to have them sterilized, so that they could not procreate and assimilate into white society. He wanted to get rid of children of color, completely from society. I just wanted to show Leyna defying that .[I wanted to] show everything that Leyna was and everything that Leyna wasn’t.”
“The character of Lutz, with his youthfulness belied by a face marked by acne, was Asante’s way of doing this. “We'd have the flip side of that coin, which is a privileged white boy. He also serves as the way to ensure that we could have a story in which Leyna becomes pregnant, defying what Hitler wants for her and protecting her fertility,” she said.
George MacKay as Lutz. Amandla Stenberg as Leyna. Source: Vertical Entertainment.
Asante consciously wanted to avoid a storyline in which Leyna was raped, while still being able to illustrate her subconscious defiance of Hitler’s determination that she not procreate. Thus, it was important to have Leyna’s pregnancy be the result of a loving relationship, as opposed to an isolated encounter.
“I wanted to give her a story arc where she goes from girl, to woman, and even mother in a context that was loving and not where we see more trauma,” the filmmaker said.
Though Asante is known for her deft ability with complex romantic dramas, she also likes to explore the young-adult dynamic, as well, as she did in her film A Way of Life. Leyna and Lutz are both relatively sheltered teenagers. “I wanted to tell the story of young people, because one of the reasons why they were sterilized and not also targeted for mass murder is because they were young. And there weren’t many of them, so they were seen to not have a lot of power. Hitler didn’t feel [as] threatened by them; their only threat was that they could procreate. That’s why they were targeted for sterilization.”
Asante also wanted have her story appeal to a broader audience. “This is a part of history that is important, and relevant to all of us, and should be to a younger generation as well,” she said.
With Where Hands Touch, Asante certainly gives the audience a lot to think about — from issues around national identity versus racial identity, to human ability to so plainly see their own humanity yet not that of their neighbor. There is also the act of overcoming internalized self-hatred and the encroachment of an outside authority that adulterates and oftentimes overrides that of a parent. The film also confronts the hard choices that young people of privilege are presented with every day, picking between that which bolsters their privilege and curtails the rights of others, or respecting all of humanity while striving for equality and fairness, rather than supremacy.
What’s Next for Amma Asante?
Completing this film seems to have also given the filmmaker a lot to think about, in terms of her goals as a screenwriter and director.
“I took stepping stones to get here, and I feel like I'm at ground zero now. I really feel like that labor of love I was trying to achieve for so long has come to fruition. Now I stand as a filmmaker with a body of work — four movies,” she said. “I feel that there's certain themes, ideas, issues and pathways I’ve really done everything I can in exploring, and it’s really time now to look at what else I can turn my hand to as a filmmaker who is also a woman — a woman of color.”