Amma Asante explores the plight of Afro-Germans under Nazi rule with her new film, Where Hands Touch.
The drama centers on Leyna (Amandla Stenberg), a biracial teenager who is thrown into a labor camp during World War II because of the color of her skin.
While Leyna is not based on one person, the film is inspired by the real lives of mixed-raced German citizens who were persecuted during Hitler’s regime, Asante told Urban Hollywood 411 during an interview last week in Los Angeles.
“It dawned on me that I knew so little of the history of people like me, people who are of the African diaspora, but born and raised in Europe,” said Asante who is of Ghanaian descent and grew up in the United Kingdom.
“I wanted to explore that sense of belonging and dis-belonging that I had to experience growing up in the U.K.,” she continued.
The writer-director, whose credits include the critically acclaimed films Belle and A United Kingdom, said she felt compelled to make Where Hands Touch after seeing a picture from the 1940s of an Afro-German girl surrounded by white children.
“I wanted to know who she was, what was her story, what did it mean to be of color surrounded by
anti-Semitism and white supremacy without a community in 1944 Germany,” Asante explained.
After the First World War, German women gave birth to hundreds of children fathered by French soldiers of African descent who occupied the Rhineland region in Western Germany, according to The Guardian.
Disparagingly known as the “Rhineland bastards,” the children were forcibly sterilized, taken to labor camps and exterminated during World War II.
While the plight of the children is well-documented in museum archives, Asante said she faced a series of obstacles trying to turn their story into a feature film.
“It was a resistant world,” she said. “I think it blew a few people’s minds, the idea that I wanted to tell this story.”
One question she said often came up was: “Does a narrative like this take away from somebody else’s story?”
Still, Asante said she was determined to make the film and hired a researcher to help with the background for the script. After visiting Holocaust museums in the U.S., U.K. and Israel, she interviewed Afro-German war survivors to confirm what she had learned.
“There weren’t many left to be honest with you, and today there aren’t many left at all” she explained.
After 12 years of struggling to find financial backers to make the film, Where Hands Touch premiered earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival, and was released in select cities on Sept. 14.
In addition to Los Angeles native Amandla Stenberg, the film stars George MacKay, Abbie Cornish, Christopher Eccleston and Tom Sweet.
The drama has faced criticism for its subplot about a romantic relationship between its biracial central character and a Nazi boy.
But Asante said despite initial fears, she has heard few complaints from moviegoers that the film detracts from the story of the six million Jews who lost their lives during the Holocaust.
“I have been approached by [Jewish] people who say ‘it certainly doesn’t take away from our stories,’” she said.