Since being announced as Amma Asante’s follow-up to A United Kingdom, the British director best known for her 2013 film Belle has been fighting the immediate controversy for her new film, Where Hands Touch. The film, centered around a biracial German girl during the rise of Hitler who falls in love with a member of the Nazi party created a bit of firestorm with some arguing the film will romanticize Nazis and shouldn’t exist at all.
Regardless of the controversy leveled against both Asante and her leading actress Amandla Stenberg, the film was made and premiered at TIFF before its theatrical release this weekend. At the premiere, Asante addressed the arguments against the film head on, saying “It would have made no sense for me to come to this in a way that tried to humanize Nazism. That’s just not who I am. Intention is everything.” And Asante is accurate that the film never sympathizes or tries to give reason for the Nazi beliefs. Instead, she focuses more so on the larger population of Germany (and the world at that time).
Asante said that, even when in Germany, she found herself compelled to ask the question of older Germans. “I was also one of those people who would go to Germany and see someone older and ask them ‘Who were you? What did you know? When did you know it? And what did you know when you knew?’ And that was a question I couldn’t stop myself from asking. It’s the key question in this film.” As such, even Stenberg’s character, persecuted for her racial background, is guilty of anti semitism herself.
The project appealed to both Stenberg and George MacKay (who plays the young Nazi Letz) in its complicated exploration of personal identity and nationalism. MacKay, a British actor, noted that Brexit has forced those in the UK to ask themselves similar questions. While American Stenberg joined the project as America was facing their own rise in xenophobia and neo-nazism. Speaking at the post-premiere Q&A, Stenberg said, “Being biracial myself, I feel like I’ve never known stories of biracial children throughout history. To see the story of this girl living during this really heinous time period. There’s this bizarre intersection of questioning her identity and questioning how and where she fits into her country. It’s something which drew me in from the beginning and something I’ve continued to question since making it, especially since the election.”
While the subject matter has received considerable debate from critics (many before seeing the film), Asante makes it clear that the film was based on considerable research and came out of her own conceptions of what the historical facts would have been for black Germans during Hitler’s reign. “I began to do mountains of research and what I read just confounded me. It didn’t sit with my assumptions of what might have happened to black Germans, knowing what was happening to Jews at the time. And I began to contact different museums and libraries from around the world, I had researchers work with me. And we just began to lay out as much research as we could. We contacted private archives and parts of the German government, until we felt that we had enough to try to start tracking down survivors. And eventually we did, we found Afro-German survivors and began to conduct interviews.”
While a piece of historical fiction, Asante explained that the story is built around real-life examples of how Black German were treated. “The key think for me was the strange place Afro-German child were held in society. They were not taken to camps in mass. They were not murdered in mass. It was on an individual basis. Many went into camps, but for those left on the outside, they were intrinsically connected to the local society of Germany. They had white, German mothers and belonged to families. And the likelihood of members of their family not being involved in the Nazi regime was very small. So there was an intrinsic connection they had, of trying to assimilate but feeling that they didn’t belong. This kind of duality.”
The screening was well received at the Toronto International Film Festival, with some in the audience even their own concerns over how the subject matter would be handled. And the premiere happened the day after Asante and Stenberg gave speeches at TIFF Share Her Journey Rally to promote women in film. All of which made Asante’s comments on the role Abbie Cornish plays (Leyna’s mother) more powerful. “We rarely see women like her on screen, white women raising black children, knowing all the complexities that will bring to children who feel they are in world which will not accept them….I wanted the purity of a mother-daughter relationship. This is movie where a mother protects her child’s fertility for half the movie, and then a child turning into a woman must protect her own child for the other half of the movie. For everything this movie is, it’s also a women’s story.”
Top Photo: Amandla Stenberg in Where Hands Touch
Photo: Abbie Cornish, left, and Amandla Stenberg
Credit: Jo Voets/Vertical Entertainment)