Amma Asante’s previous directing credits include “Belle” and “A Way of Life.” Both films premiered at TIFF. Asante has been named by Variety as one of the Top Ten Directors to Watch, and received the BAFTA Carl Foreman Award for Special Achievement by a Writer/Director in a Debut Film for “A Way of Life.” She was also honored with the BFI London Film Festival’s inaugural Alfred Dunhill UK Film Talent Award, created to recognize the achievements of a new or emerging British writer-director.
“A United Kingdom” will premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival on September 9.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
AA: It’s the 1947 story of an African Prince, heir to the throne, and from a British Colony — Seretse Khama. He is sent by his elders to study law in London, as well as the workings of the minds of the imperial powers ruling his country, so that he can return home eventually and best challenge them in representing his people’s interests within a system which is unfair, and unequal.
Unexpectedly, he falls in love with a white woman — it’s a whirlwind romance and he somehow believes he can take her back to his country to be his white queen. But it’s not a story of “how they fall in love”; it’s the story of what happens once they do — the fallout. So it’s a love story against a political backdrop.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
AA: The opportunity to tell a true story — that might normally be told solely through white and male eyes — through my gaze, and to slant the perspective to a certain extent because of that. Also, the challenge of Seretse’s (David Oyelowo) choice to take a white woman (Rosamund Pike) to Africa to be a queen during colonial times. The enormity of such a controversial move, even by today’s standards, was huge, of course.
I thought about my mother, my aunts, my uncles — how they might have felt at that time were a leader from their nation to bring home an outsider to be queen, and I wanted the opportunity to include that possible point of view and see it through their eyes. Then there was the chance to include a story of African independence within the film. My dad stood in Independence Square in Ghana the day his country became independent. I remember his stories. This was an opportunity to look back on another story of independence from the continent.
I also saw an opportunity to include points of view from all sides, even if only briefly, and I wanted to present the predicament that the UK government found themselves in once the couple decided they wanted to live in Africa — the Cold War, Britain’s economic situation post-war, and the inter-continent pressures that ensued. Thus, giving the film the chance to ask the question: What would you have done if you were in the UK government’s shoes?
So I was drawn to the idea of combining the worlds of the two continents that have impacted me the most growing up: Europe and Africa.
This is certainly a love story but it was the political aspects during a period when white supremacy and the birth of black independence were vying for dominance — and outlined in Susan William’s book, “Colour Bar” — that sucked me in and clinched it for me.
“A United Kingdom” screenwriter Guy Hibbert did a wonderful job squeezing all those years into one script, giving it a firm foundation. David Oyelowo wooed me to his “passion project,” persuading me to come on board. My job was to build on that and try to apply my stamp through the aspects I’ve described.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
AA: That the couple made choices that were unfavorable to many at that time but they stuck to what they believed in and — despite that opposition — their love won out.
We’ve all been in positions of feeling unsupported. The question is: How do we find the courage to stick to our guns and follow what we believe when all else is against us?
Some will agree with the couple’s choices. Some won’t. Ultimately, the couple never gave up on their fight for justice and their wish to be together. I’d like people to think about justice and determination, whatever their circumstances may be.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
AA: There were many. Filming in the immense heat. Trying to find the right balance within the story of politics and love. Squeezing a lot of story into the space that a film allows.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
AA: Pathé funded development and production. BBC Films, BFI, and Ingenious joined funding for production. Pathé was drawn by the book and script. Casting David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, along with finding the director, helped to greenlight the film.
W&H: What does it mean for you to have your film play at TIFF?
AA: I adore TIFF. All three of my films have world premiered here and I have been grateful for their consideration each time my work is selected.
The audiences are incredible: savvy and supportive and true film lovers. The festival is always great at making sure directors meet other directors — something we rarely have an opportunity to do.
Being at TIFF is a privilege and a great launch for the film.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
AA: Best advice: My friend Delyth Thomas, who is also a director, said, “Always stay one step ahead of your crew.
Worst advice: “Don’t wear high heels on set.” Pointless tip.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
AA: Be relentless, bold, tenacious, and know your worth.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
AA: That’s tough — there are quite a few. But if I had to choose today, it would be between Kasi Lemmons’ “Eve’s Bayou,” a beautiful, powerful, and affecting film, which was was inspirational to me, and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” with Jessica Chastain remains one of my favorite films by a woman or a man for direction and performance.
W&H: Have you seen opportunities for women filmmakers increase over the last year due to the increased attention paid to the issue? If someone asked you what you thought needed to be done to get women more opportunities to direct, what would be your answer?
AA: When I see the figures, it seems…no. But, anecdotally, it feels like there has been a shift. This might simply be because organizations like Women and Hollywood and other brilliant women’s organizations that are highlighting the work of female directors, so I’ve become more aware.
I would say the biggest shift in delivering opportunities to women needs to be in trust. The powers that be — those who commission and finance (and that includes women as well as men) — need to to trust stories in our hands, crews in our hands, and the audiences’ ability to respond to our work.
Development and financing teams need to consist of people who trust and understand that stories are and will become stale if we continue to only see them through a single type of gaze, and if we continue to ignore talent from whole swathes of society simply to feel “safe.”