British film director Amma Asante spoke to Helen Herimbi about the past and painting a new perception
With classical music wafting in the air at the elegant albeit plantation-looking Chateau de Labourdonnais, it felt like the guests invited to the opening of the inaugural Mauritius Cinema Week were in a period drama. A fitting scene to meet a British film director and former actress with Ghanaian roots and a penchant for bringing back to life a bygone era.
A United Kingdom, which is Asante’s critically acclaimed 2016 drama about Botswana’s Seretse Khama and his wife, Ruth, was one of the films selected to be screened at Mauritius Cinema Week and Asante was also a part of a master class that week. I prised Asante away from a throng of people holding onto her every word and we settled into a nook in the passage of the Chateau to chat.
“For me, cinema should be important to any country so any country that dedicates a week of its time, if not more, to just promoting cinema is doing a really important thing,” she said. The 48-year-old, who was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire this year for her services to film, was candid about being able to tell personal yet universal stories.
“There are so many ideas about filmmaking,” she told me. “There’s no wrong or right way. But what I want to impart is that a filmmaker doesn’t come in one shape or one particular form. A filmmaker doesn’t think in any one particular way and in fact, we all have something unique to bring to a story. Whether it’s a story we wrote ourselves or whether it was written and somehow we found our hook or connection with it.”
“It’s unique but there are elements of it that will always be universal. It’s about finding that: what is your uniqueness? Why should you be the one who directs this film? And then how can you make sure you bring an audience to connecting with that piece of work in the same way that you did? Because of the universal elements.”
Following her award-winning 2004 directorial debut, A Way of Life, Asante went on to receive global acclaim with Belle, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw in 2013. The film, which was inspired by a painting, is about Dido Belle, a mixed-race heiress in the 18th century. So I asked Asante what uniqueness of her own led her to be the best person for Belle.
“For decades, specifically as black females, our stories have been told by other people,” she said. “So it shouldn’t be unique that my being a black female telling this story of a black female is unique, but it was.”
“Because being at the centre of our own stories – which is why I absolutely wanted to make Belle – and not as a supporting artist in our story or a witness to our own story but the person at the centre of it is something I think, at this moment in time, only a black female director could do it the way that I did it. I wanted her story to be an interior story as well as an exterior one. A story that was about her own interior journey as well as the social politics that were going on at the time.”
She continued: “For me, what was really important was to say: who would I be if I were an 18th century woman in Belle’s position? Uniquely, I can do that. I am the child of an African mother raised in Europe – perhaps not in the 18th century but I still have elements where I can hook into her story but also find a way for everyone in the audience to hook into her story as well.”
On A United Kingdom, in which Mzansi’s own Terry Pheto’s role as Naledi Khama has seen the SA actress and entrepreneur scoop numerous awards, she said: “I am particularly pleased about Terry being really acknowledged. For me, Terry is a quiet but forceful presence and I love what she is able to bring. I want to be able to showcase as many black females as I can.”
“That doesn’t necessarily mean that they will always be at the very centre of every story but it means no story should hopefully evolve from me without one. I’m not South African but I am African and to be able to bring my fellow African woman into this story and give a political voice to the women of Botswana was a really important thing to be able to do.”
In her upcoming film, I Am Leyna – which was previously known as Where Hands Touch – Asante gives a voice to the children who were derogatorily named the Rhineland Bastards. The film is set in Berlin in 1944.
It “tells the story of the German black children who were raised under Hitler,” Asante explained. “The focus on persecuting the Jews was such a strong force which Hitler had behind him that what that meant was while apartheid was just two years from being created in South Africa and while in America, black people were still strange fruit, actually in Germany, black people were not the complete bottom of the food chain.”
“They were walking this tightrope that meant they weren’t the complete focus of persecution but they were also not free to just live and be who they were. And so the story is about this girl being in this very grey area of life at a time when her fellow human beings are being wiped out around her.”
Telling our tales
All of Asante’s films seem to be a look back at history so I asked her if she is constantly stuck in the past and if she ever thinks about creating current or even futuristic films. “In a way, yeah,” she nodded and smiled.
“But first and foremost, it’s important to me. Because we haven’t been able to tell our own stories in any great depth for such a long time, I think it’s as if we as black filmmakers are starting at the beginning. We’re first starting with our history and readjusting that gaze because that gaze has been told through a different perspective for so long that it’s about us writing the record, if that makes sense.”
“There are two reasons why I like doing period movies. One,” she pointed with her index finger, “is for that reason and the other reason is I love the idea of audiences going in and feeling like they’re watching a period movie and then coming out thinking: ‘Wow, you know what? That’s still today.’ For me, they have to have a contemporary relevance.”
“I want to be able to move forward in time but only once I feel like I’ve created enough of a platform for myself to say: now that you’ve got to grips with a different kind of black female than the one you keep perpetually seeing on screen, now I’m ready to show you exactly who we are today.”