Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.
Amma Asante has an easy idea to help emerging female filmmakers: bring them to set. More specifically, to her sets, where the “Belle” and “A United Kingdom” filmmaker can assist burgeoning creative minds as they learn the ropes of production. Asante has been quietly mentoring fellow filmmakers this way for years, as part of a grassroots commitment to help raise up the next generation of women in the industry, an initiative she’s happy to carry out without much in the way of publicity or fanfare.
“I’ve made a commitment to ensuring that whenever I’m on set and whenever I’m filming that I always have an emerging female filmmaker there to shadow me,” Asante told IndieWire. “Not to work on the set, because I want them to be able to focus on learning whatever they can, picking up whatever they can, comparing whatever they need to.”
Her hands-on contributions have not been overlooked, however, and Asante is being honored at this week’s female-focused Athena Film Festival alongside other talents like Bridget Everett, Barbara Kopple, and J.J. Abrams. Previous honorees include Ava DuVernay, Eve Ensler, Greta Gerwig, Diablo Cody, Kasi Lemmons, Karyn Kusama, Debra Martin Chase, Dee Rees, Nekisa Cooper, Patricia Riggen, Callie Khouri, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and Julie Taymor. (The fest has also announced their Athena List winners, including A. Sayeeda Moreno, Betty Sullivan, Katherine Ruppe, Lori Bell Leahy, and more, which you can check out here.)
“I still feel like I’m carving my way,” Asante said when asked about being honored for her leadership and her amplification of women’s voices in film. With just three films under her belt — her fourth, “Where Hands Touch,” is targeted for release later this year — the Brit has already made her mark in the industry. She’s served on both the BAFTA Council and the BAFTA Film committee and was appointed as a Member of the Order of the British Empire just last year.
For Asante, her activism and her dedication to equality in the industry isn’t something she’s consciously made a part of her work; it’s something that just comes naturally to her. “They’re not things that I actively go out of my way to think about,” she said. “The amplification of women’s voices is something that’s so normal and natural to me and I couldn’t imagine a world without it.”
As the industry continues to react to both the #MeToo moment and the Time’s Up movement, Asante is cautiously optimistic that more members of the entertainment industry are cluing in to her way of thinking.
“I hope it’s starting to become natural for all elements in this equation, not just for women but for men as well, to realize that voices of women are important and we have something to say and we have a contribution to make whether it comes to the telling of stories in front of the screen or behind the camera,” she said.
Asante’s bent towards equality translates directly to the environment she hopes to foster on her sets, one that values equality, parity, and respect. It doesn’t hurt that she has always loved working with women.
Tantrum Films/Pinewood Pictures
“It’s a very comfortable feeling for me to have other women around me,” Asante said. “I’ve been very lucky with my crews and I’ve always had a majority of crew – I will say a majority, at least 95%– who have always been extremely respectful of women and who have always really seen women as equals. I’ve always found when you have had that odd one out who has had an issue or a problem, they’ve really stood out because they just haven’t fit in with the rest of the team.”
Even from her vantage point, Asante is loath to cast herself as someone who has it all figured out. For her, the mentoring process is part of the creative process. It’s an exchange.
“I’ve always kept my mentoring relatively informal in the sense that I have maybe five or six women at the moment who know that they can always come to me if they’ve got questions,” Asante said, “I’ve found it a really kind of two-way rewarding experience.”
When it came time to pick mentees for her latest feature, the World War II drama “Where Hands Touch,” Asante asked for applications on Twitter, and received over 200 from female filmmakers around the world. “My last film, I knew that I was going to select two women, and they were all so brilliant, they were all so exceptional, there wasn’t one weak application in there,” Asante said. “I ended up picking four!”
The four she selected hailed from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Uganda, and all of them – including Taren Maroun, Nasuna Zimbe, Marica Petrey, and Gloria Tafa – joined her on the set of the historical romance in Belgium.
“I often think shadowing isn’t really about specifically learning from somebody else but looking at what they do and then looking at what you do and working out whether they have formulas and whether they have specific patterns or ways of working that perhaps you haven’t thought of before and may be useful,” she said.
Asante particularly likes tailoring the experience for each mentee. “You can work out what each one wants to build on and then create a system whereby if one wants to spend more time in the technical aspects, you can send them off with a camera team or send them off with a lighting crew,” she said. “If one wants to spend more time with costume or makeup [they can do that]. Sometimes they just want to sit with me in the morning and look at my shot list, look at my mood board, that kind of thing.”
Asante’s mentorship doesn’t end when shooting wraps, and she happily recounted a recent chat with a former mentee who is embarking on a new project. Asante was, of course, primed to help, but it’s all still a two-way street for her.
“It was wonderful that she was able to come spend some time with me, pick up whatever she wanted to pick up on during that process of shooting my last film, and hopefully now I’m going to be able to do the same with her,” Asante said. “We can label it whatever we want, I can call her an emerging filmmaker, but in many ways she has just as much to offer me as hopefully I have to offer her.”