Even before her latest film had shown a single frame of footage, Amma Asante’s “Where Hands Touch” was garnering negative attention online. When a first-look photo from the film was released in mid-February, it was met with backlash across social media platforms, and commenters voiced their displeasure that, in crafting a story around a persecuted person and a Hitler Youth, Asante was “romanticizing” Nazis and otherwise diminishing the experience of those that suffered during World War II and the Holocaust.
“Where Hands Touch” follows the romance between pair of German teenagers — Amandla Stenberg as biracial Leyna and George MacKay as Lutz, the son of a prominent SS officer and a member of the Hitler Youth — and it unfolds against the backdrop of the war and the Holocaust. Two of Asante’s previous films, “Belle” and “A United Kingdom,” are historically-set dramas that focus on interracial relationships that unfold despite intense racism and persecution.
Asante responded with a statement that emphasized her reasons for making the film and her hopes that audiences would wait until they could see the finished product before judging it. Seven months later, the film is gearing up for a big September, with a Toronto International Film Festival premiere and a subsequent theatrical release. For Asante, it’s a relief to finally be able to put the finished film in front of audiences.
“It’s really, really hard when you know that you’ve created something for a whole set of reasons, and that what you’ve created is not the narrative that people are using to describe it,” Asante said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “When you have a backlash like that, sometimes you think, ‘Maybe I’m just making this feeling up in my head. Maybe I have done something really crazy.’ I don’t think I have.”
As for those claims that the film “romanticizes” Nazis or Nazism, Asante is resolute. “This wasn’t a movie that was ever going to have, let’s just say, a romantic ending,” she said. “When people talk about it as a romance, and romanticizing Nazism, that is the one thing this movie does not do. I hope that people walk away being really, really clear about the story that I have tried to tell. I hope that people walk away moved.”
For the filmmaker, “Where Hands Touch” has been a passion project over a decade in the making, one first inspired by her first feature, “A Way of Life,” which also focused on a marginalized young woman who is confined by notions of class and race. That project was shot in Wales, home to some of the oldest communities in Europe, a historical nugget that grabbed Asante.
“As a woman of African descent, I knew very, very little about other people like me in history,” she said. “You have to remember that ‘Belle’ didn’t exist at that particular point. I didn’t about Belle, I didn’t know about the Rhineland children, I just knew that I knew more about African American history than about my own.” She started digging.
Soon, she landed on the so-called “Rhineland bastards,” Afro-German children born during and after the post-WWI occupation of Germany’s Rhineland section. “I discovered this kind of generation of children, who had been named this term in a horrible and derogatory way, by the Nazis and by Hitler in particular,” she said. “My first thought was, ‘Oh, my God, if there were people of color in Germany during Hitler’s time and we know what they did to the Jews, what must they have done to these people of color?’ Nothing that I expected unfolded.”
Asante started working on the script in 2005, aided by further research at London’s Whelan Library and interviews with Black survivors of the Holocaust. Even as Asante’s stature grew in the filmmaking world, she stayed fixed on making “Where Hands Touch.”
“I think that these are stories that haven’t been told in any way, and they deserve to be told, and they have a right to be told,” she said. “When stories are hidden, and they haven’t been told, I think that when we hear about them, we have an expectation that they should sit more firmly with experiences that we know and we recognize. … I interviewed people who have experiences, and those experiences weren’t necessarily comfortable ones, but it’s their truth, and it’s not our right to challenge that.”
Asante said the experience on this production would inform her projects going forward. “A narrative, particularly on social media, becomes a truth,” she said. “And until you can show that truth to be a lie, there’s not a lot you can do. You just have to sit tight and have faith in the work that you’ve done and also in your intention. I had my faith in my intention, and I had faith in the work that I had done with Amandla, with Abbie Cornish, with Christopher Eccleston, with George MacKay. I just really have faith in that, and I have faith that audiences will come to the film and judge it for what it is.”
“Where Hands Touch” will have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this week. Vertical Entertainment will release it on September 14.