It was a privilege for the cast and I to present the world premiere of Where Hands Touch at the Toronto International Film Festival. This is a vision that I held in my mind for well over a decade. It is a story that I felt compelled to explore after discovering the existence of children of color who grew up in Nazi Germany, sparking years of research which smashed almost every assumption I had about what the lives of these children must have been.
As I tracked down and was blessed to be able to sit with Afro-German survivors of the period and listen to their testimony during interviews, a powerful realization hit me – how significantly, we are all products of our time and our place. That Afro-German children were not excluded from this; that Black children were not excluded from the overall spectrum of humanity that such a period generated, was extremely halting to me.
…A question that came to me over a decade ago. Why did I know more about African-American history, than I did the histories of others from the African Diaspora – those like me, who were of African descent, but born and raised in Europe? There was no other answer that I could come up with, other than, some histories become more dominant than others.
Having made my first film, which was set in South Wales – a part of the United Kingdom that had some of the oldest Black communities in Europe living on its shores, that question of an African diaspora history in Europe had obsessed me.
Believing that the international awards I had won for this first film, including a British Academy Film & Television Award (BAFTA), would open doors for me to smooth the pathway in making my second film, I sat down at the computer and began putting in relevant search terms to see what I could find. I wasn’t certain anything would emerge that could form the basis of a second a film for me, but I was going to try, anyway.
As I ploughed through results, one phrase kept continually arising, ‘Rhineland Bastards’, and as I began to read about them in brief encyclopedic outlines, my interest was peaked.
I had a fair knowledge of The Holocaust and the periods that led to the devastating mass murder of over 6 million European Jewish citizens and others that did not meet Hilter’s vision for his Germany. But I knew I needed to know much, much more. So I hired a researcher to begin working with me. Together, she and I worked layer by layer on the foundations and the details that I was going to piece together through the script I wanted to write. We utilized access to libraries and museums around the world, including The United States Holocaust Museum, The Wiener Library in London – the world’s oldest Holocaust archive, The Library of Congress, Yad Vashem in Israel and many more which I visited and accessed electronically also. In eventually visiting Yad Vashem I am grateful for the tour I was taken on by former senior guide, Guy Shemer (previous guide to President Obama during his visit to the museum), cementing my belief in all of the research that we had pulled together. I spread my visits to concentration camps across the period of time I was working on the script and film, including Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. This was so that I always had a recent memory in my head of the very raw feelings that I felt each time I visited such a place and attempted to know more about the history and those who suffered and were murdered.
At the same time I slowly made my way through hours and hours of intimate testimonies, utilizing historical documents such as the transcripts of the Nuremberg Trials, and those given and donated as a matter of public record to various museums.
My researcher was able to gain access to certain archives and by day, as I worked through testimonies, she would be piecing together vital pieces of information and research that I needed to understand or illustrate the more legal, political, or structural elements of Germany’s National Socialist thinking, planning and Modus Operandi. We were able to access articles from the period, newspaper caricature sketches, small and large details that we could photocopy and place in our research files, slowly fleshing out a picture of a world – unique and terrifying. As we did so, I realized how much my previous, average, understanding when first coming into our research process, was inadequate, and nowhere near what I needed to begin crafting this world in script form, and later painting its depiction on screen. So with each day of learning and garnering more understanding, I felt compelled to continue. Our research essentially began with the events that led to the First World War under the Kaiser Wihelm II, Germany’s loss, the Versailles Treaty, and all that emerged from these events. However, to look a the roots of anti-Semitism, we chose to go back much further – centuries even.
I am a lover of history. However, I am not a historian and so it was incumbent upon me to understand and hear from scholars at various museums and universities who had specific knowledge of particular areas when I found parts of this piece of history that I wanted to delve into more deeply. So, by day my researcher and I would make calls and speak to those we could gain access to, to bring back the information and add it to our growing set of research files.
Our research also included testimony by then Hitler Youth. I was interested to know what the formal and structural education of hatred, anti-Semitism, dehumanization and murder looks like on young developing minds, packaged as National Identity. I wanted to know because of obvious resonance with today, fears for today and because in recognizing what formal education looks like, we may more easily recognise it when we see it in its informal guise.
We studied and researched the build up to the two World Wars and intra-war period, in terms of how the loss of World War I was perceived by Germany, its leaders, its people and those soldiers that survived, and we looked at the lives of those one might call ‘ordinary every day’ citizens, both Jewish and non-Jewish, during the build up to the Second World War and beyond. While it was important to know about all of the political leaders of that time, and also the significant ‘saviors’, such as Schindler – I wanted to know about those who were neither saving Jews nor creating the rules of the time, but who were definitely involved in forming the structure of Hitler’s Germany and unfolding its horrors – willingly or unwillingly, through staying quiet – doing nothing, or actively operating as a citizen of National Socialist Germany.
Finally, when I felt we had sufficient background in order to begin seeking out survivors of Germany’s Nazi hatred and mass murdering machine, we began our search.
I focused on Germany, because this was specifically the country that the Rhineland Afro German children existed in and was the setting for Where Hands Touch.
I already had a very small amount of finance for research and development from the BFI. I had saved enough to take an assistant and German translator to Germany where I sat down with Afro-German survivors of the period and I listened and recorded their testimonies. It was powerful, it was at times shocking, at other times it was confounding but through all of the feelings and emotions, the overwhelming wave in me, was that of feeling privileged…utterly so… to be able to hear first-hand, the unheard, un-amplified voices of a well documented period in history, in which their stories were virtually absent.
There were differences and similarities in their stories. But the patterns were clear. These interviews confirmed to me the track I was on and they made me absolutely determined for the next 10 years to tell this story.
I say the next ten years after a good period of initial research, because on delivering an early draft of the script to executives who might finance the film, I was told such a piece of work was ‘too big for me’. It hadn’t dawned on me after winning the accolades that I had, that I might be restricted in the kind of film I might want to make next. I didn’t know any other female movie directors at the time, and so had no knowledge that this was a frequent phrase that women directors heard. I didn’t answer back and often left meetings with my tail between my legs, not knowing quite what to do with the fire in me that wanted to tell this story.
At the same time, I was compelled to keep going. At a particular point we gained a production company that said they wanted to make the film with us – that is, with my production company, Tantrum Films. Several years of development followed until the financing eventually collapsed with that other production company. At this point I was convinced this was a movie I was never going to be allowed to make. The blow was big. I had a strong inclination that this was a sign that the industry did not want me in it, and that I didn’t belong. After all, if a BAFTA Award and my first film were not enough to prove my capabilities, what else should I have at my disposal to prove that I could?
Around that time the now famous picture postcard of Dido Belle and her cousin Elizabeth was sent to me by the man who became my producer on the film Belle. Feeling deeply despondent, I had already decided I would step away from film and find something else to do, I looked at the image of Belle and felt inspired. I initially pushed it to one side. But, my script for Where Hands Touch had been passed around the industry quite a bit, and it was this knowledge of the strength of my story about a bi-racial girl’s existence in Nazi Germany, that prompted producers and financiers to believe that I had what it would take to tell Dido Belle’s story. It is a testament to my producer on Belle, that he didn’t give up, even when I tried to put off his interest for as long as I could.
That day, something triggered in my mind. Perhaps, if I successfully brought Belle’s story to the big screen, I could prove to financiers that I had the capability to do the same with Where Hands Touch. It took 3 years of research and hard work to bring Belle to audiences, but it garnered enough respect so that I and Where Hands Touch’s producer could raise about three quarters of the budget to make the film. But it wasn’t enough.
I knew I had to make one more film, to earn enough respect and trust from the powers that be, to let me make the film I had been desperate to make for so long. When A United Kingdom came to me, I felt its epic nature, themes and topics might be enough to tip the scale for financing on Where Hands Touch, IF I could successfully make the film. I steered the project, thematically, into one that made sense for me to direct and, with that, provided at least enough evidence for no one to be able to say to me that Where Hands Touch was too big for me, again. We raised the last quarter of the budget, which then collapsed again when a financier withdrew due to creative differences.
We were three weeks into pre-production and four weeks away from filming. Many of our crew were already working out of our production offices. At the eleventh hour, however, we finally received the final piece of funding through a film funder about a week after the project’s collapse, which helped massively, though there was still a gap in the budget. To make it work, my producer put his fee for producing into the film, and I also put my fee for directing into the film.
In 2016 we went into production in Belgium – a place we felt could give us a sense of pre-bombed Berlin. Amandla Stenberg, who I cast alongside George Mackay, Abbie Cornish and Christopher Eccleston, had just turned 18 on the day she landed to join myself, the producers and crew on location to shoot the film. It felt like an epic day – the culmination of much work, intention and hope.
The chance to film in a real camp was offered, and we were allowed to recce for those purposes. However, on embarking on the recce with a local location manager and my producer, I made the decision that this was not something I could do. The sense that you feel when standing in a camp is profound. I was confronted with the shooting wall against which many lives had been taken and my view was, and is, that camps should be left alone for the important work that they do – which is to memorialize and honor the experiences of those who suffered and those who were murdered within them, while ensuring that what happened is never forgotten.
In embarking on the journey to tell this story, I have felt myself grow. I learned more about my fellow human beings, both then and now, than I ever would have without the knowledge of the Rhineland Children. It has been grueling but I am ever grateful for this path.
My greatest hope is that I will eventually be given permission by the Afro German survivors and their families to donate the recorded interviews that I made of their testimonies to a Holocaust museum or library. That in some small way, our research may make a small contribution to the records and archives that keep this history alive for future generations.
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