IT’S the San Sebastian film festival. A young British writer/ director of Ghanaian descent and her cast of Welsh teenagers are here for the European premiere of A Way of Life, the film they worked on together. They face an imposingly cavernous auditorium, lined by row upon row of intense young Spanish audience members who will later be called upon to vote on the film. They look terrified. As the lights go down, I notice that the director, Amma Asante, reaches across and gives a comforting squeeze to the hand of the actor sitting next to her. It’s a little, empathetic gesture that says a lot about this director.
Asante -a former child actor herself with a regular role on Grange Hill -is fiercely protective of her young cast. She’s aware that the material she has had them working with is challenging. Set in Wales, within a community of youngsters marginalised by unemployment, the story touches on universal themes. Leigh-Anne (an impressive newcomer, Stephanie James,) is a teenage mother battling the benefits system to provide for the baby she loves more than anything else in the world. But everyone, from the social worker to the baby’s meddling paternal grandmother (Brenda Blethyn), seems to think that she’s not up to the job. Angry and desperately worried that someone is about to take her child away, Leigh-Anne feels under siege. She turns to her tight-knit group of friends -the only real family she has known -and manipulates their existing racist tendencies against the man she misguidedly holds responsible for her problems: her Muslim neighbour Hassan. Thus a tragedy begins to unfold that is as inevitable as Greek mythology.
To prepare her cast for the film, Asante spent a considerable amount of time doing improvisational workshops, something that proved difficult for both the actors and their director. “I think it was hard for them to draw on racist language. And I had to hide my own feelings -I was really shocked by some of the improvisations that we came out with. I couldn’t show my own shock because that would inhibit them.”
It’s perhaps not surprising for a young black screenwriter to address the subject of racism. But what is more unusual is that Asante’s story is told largely from the point of view of the perpetrators rather than the victims. She’s interested in finding the fallible but likeable humans behind the unforgivable acts. She explains: “As a black woman, I was trying to explore what some of the motivations for racism might be. I felt like I was using racism as a tool to explore poverty.”
That’s not to say that Asante didn’t draw on her own experiences. “What I identified with in Leigh-Anne was the sense of isolation, although I was more the Julie character in the film, and Hassan was definitely my Dad. We were one of two black families living in a predominantly white street. I felt really isolated. I wanted to be part of everybody else’s lives, I wanted to play out like the other kids. The Hassan character really came from the fact that my Dad had a dignity – he used to get matches through the letter box and things like that -but there were times when I could see that quite often it had nothing to do with race, it had to do with age, it had to do with the fact that my Dad was an adult and he was dealing with children.”
One of the main achievements of this exceptionally powerful film is that, in the character of Leigh-Anne, Asante has managed to create someone who is both utterly reprehensible but also almost as deserving of our sympathy as the people she victimises.
The key to this is the fact that Leigh-Anne is a child overloaded with adult responsibilities. Minxy and manipulative, she plays her friends off against each other. Like every teenage girl, she tests her own power. And like every teenage girl, she’s not fully aware of the consequences of her actions. It’s just that in this case, the consequences are destructive and far-reaching.
It seems unlikely, given the assured job that Asante has made of the film, that she never intended to direct it. As a co-producer, she had been looking for A list directors to tackle her script, until one of her financiers suggested that she should think about taking on the job herself. “The thing that was really frightening was that I had got a really good response for the script, in a way that I hadn’t for anything else that I had written before. My worry was: can I translate this story into images and can I do something that is at least as good if not better than the script. I could imagine people looking at it and going: ‘The script was really good but what happened to the film?’ That would have been the ultimate failure.”
The financiers decided to pay for Asante to shoot some test scenes. “I still remember the first day of shooting the pilot. I got through the first scene and I was so pleased with myself. And then all of a sudden, 40 faces turned and stared at me and one of them said, ‘What now?’ And I went blank.”
Asante credits her cool head when the filming was for real to the memory of that terrifying incident, and to some advice from a fellow director, Delyth Thomas.
“She took me aside and said: ‘All you have to remember is to be one step ahead.’
I’m good with easy advice. I thought -one step ahead? I can do that. In fact I can do two.”
By Wendy Ide, © 2004 Times Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved