Amma's Way - An interview with the director of A Way of Life
Please note that the interview necessarily contains spoilers for the film
Amma Asante's A Way Of Life, a tough drama about a teenage mother living on a rough estate in Wales, may well be the best debut feature film by a British director since Shane Meadows. Considering that Asante is both female and black, her achievement in an industry not known for its generosity to either group is quite astonishing. But the refreshing thing is that she asks for no concessions to be made for either her gender or ethnicity - not that her film needs them. A Way Of Life kicks you in the gut with its raw power, makes you laugh with its sharp sense of comedy and then, following as complete an emotional work-out as I've experienced for a long time, breaks your heart for characters who, in most other films, would be foul.
When we spoke on the phone, Amma had recently received the Carl Foreman BAFTA award for the Most Promising Newcomer. She says it's too early to tell what impact this will have on her career but says "Personally it's been huge and such an encouragement" and hopes that it will make it easier to get that all-important second film off the ground. She hoped to begin writing this immediately after going to a festival in Argentina.
Although the film demonstrates her natural talent, Amma never intended to become a director, observing that "it always seemed too difficult" when she was involved in writing and producing and realising that, generally speaking, "directors aren't female, aren't under 35 and aren't black". It was a financier who suggested that she had a go at directing A Way Of Life herself, having seen that it was the piece she was most proud of writing. Having made the mental leap and decided to direct, she was relieved to find that the crew were so supportive - "I think the clincher was finishing early on the first day!" - and that they were willing to stick with her when the project was delayed. She found production designer Hayden Pierce particularly enthusiastic and helpful - "You know, the start date gets pushed back and pushed back so I had to rely on pure good will... Hayden carved up his time in order to ensure he could work on the film". Pierce, who began his career in cheap exploitation films with directors such as Norman J. Warren before becoming a much sought-after designer for films and television, was well used to the problems of a first time director working on a tight budget and was also able to help her with getting the details of Wales right; "I had to get to know Wales and soak up the world. Hayden gave me bits of history and we spent hours and hours musing on the locations and the designs." Indeed, a similar attitude was prevalent among the rest of the crew, many of whom felt that working with a new director "brought the magic back". Amma describes her crew as having a 'great dynamic' with both her and the cast and she speaks warmly of the good will she experienced. Her frequent refrain on set, "I love it when it works", became something of a catchphrase.
One of the most astonishing aspects of the film is the extraordinary performance given by the lead actress Stephanie James. Amma stresses that the character was "all there in the script" but gives immense credit to Stephanie. "It was still a hard job with so many conflicting feelings to project". In real life, Stephanie is a typical, well adjusted teenager so it was very difficult for her to find a way into the character. Amma's experiences of growing up on a tough London estate were obviously helpful and she rightly praises Stephanie for "a fantastic and amazing job". She was keen not to give Stephanie too much background to the character, aware that Leigh-Anne couldn't be too knowing without giving the game away; a certain spontaneity was essential
The difficult nature of the character is perhaps the central focus of the film and in one scene, where Leigh-Anne pimps the underage daughter of a neighbour to a middle aged man, we are confronted with something which we might naturally find very hard to handle. Amma says she went back and forth on whether to include it or not - "can I do this, can I honesty not do it?" - but after a lot of research, realised that it does happen. Some girls, unwilling to whore themselves, will pimp other, more vulnerable teenagers for cash if that's what they have to do. This is the kind of awkward, unsavoury reality which A Way Of Life doesn't flinch from. Amma is very firmly convinced that "People need to be reminded that these things do happen." This scene, along with much else in the film, has its basis in the appalling, grinding poverty of the society depicted, a poverty which is perhaps all the more upsetting for happening in a place so close to the viewer. Amma describes poverty as "a disease that affects society" and her anger at what it does to human beings comes off the screen with electrifying force. The characters think they can somehow avoid or control the social effects of poverty, none more so than the unfortunate Hassan who receives a horribly graphic kicking in the opening scene, but they can't because its endemic and all around them.
Leigh-Anne is in a particularly odd position because she's neither a child nor a grown woman, so sex acts come easier for her because she is "firmly in that middle ground". Scenes such as the pimping of the young girl demonstrate that Leigh-Anne neither values her own life nor anyone else's except - and it's a huge, vital exception - the life of her child. "Whatever value she has for herself, or lack of value, her hope is in that child." She kills for the child, or so she thinks in her tragically distorted view of the world around her, so she doesn't care if she throws herself away. This might suggest that we can't sympathise with Leigh-Anne, but we do. In fact, your heart shatters for her at the end in a scene which has just as much brutal force as the opening act of violence. When a police woman comes to take the baby from her, the one thing which she values in her life, you suddenly see in Leigh-Anne's eyes a dawning realisation of what she's done. It's a hugely moving moment and its then that you realise that this tough, foul-mouthed teenage girl is just as vulnerable and flawed as anyone else. That realisation is, if you like, her redemption.
The film opens with a savage act of violence committed by Leigh-Anne and her male friends upon Hassan, an Asian who, we discover, they believe has reported Leigh-Anne as a bad mother to social services. Amma was keen to start with a confrontational scene; "I didn't want to be gentle on the audience. I wanted to show them monsters and then gradually have them turn out to be people". She instinctively rebels against the standard tabloid line on crime - "What is behind the headline? What's the story behind the monsters? I wanted to go beyond the simple moral certainties of the red-top newspapers". The heart of the film lies in a passionate belief of Amma's - "People aren't born evil or racist or murderers. These are things they become and I wanted to know how and why they become them." She doesn't believe that they intended the violence to go quite as far as it does, speaking of a "pack mentality which makes it hard to know when to stop." Essentially, the film has Hassan as the character who represents society and who taps into their weaknesses. "I wanted to show how fragile people are and to show that, no matter what they do, these kids can love". It was important to her to give each character at least one scene "in which they say one thing which is reasonable and understandable". Indeed, the fatal violence comes shortly after a lovely scene in which the lads, in a reminder of the car scene in Wayne's World sing along to "A Thousand Trees" by the Stereophonics - ironically, a song about the way suspicion and gossip spreads fatal rumours that destroy lives. On the question of whether the kids know the seriousness of the damage they inflict, Amma is reluctant to comment. She says she doesn't know and that you'd have to ask the characters. But she goes so far as to say that the teenage characters are bouncing between emotions throughout the film and its very hard to tell what their emotional state is and how much they realise about the consequences of their impulsive actions.
Many reviews of the film have concentrated on the film as a study of racism but I don't think this is its principle theme. The topic of racial violence is certainly there but it's not shoved in your face and it seems to me that the film is far more about the way poverty infects everything it touches. Amma agrees - "I'm interested less in racism than in the relationship between racism and poverty. Racism is a symptom of poverty, all about identity, voice and exclusion." The relationship between Leigh-Anne and Hassan is more complex than it appears. On one level, Hassan represents the good and caring father that Leigh-Anne doesn't have. Amma felt she would have liked them to connect in at least one scene - when Leigh-Anne's baby is accidentally burned and Hassan provides a bandage; "When the baby was burned, I wanted Hassan to go over and help Leigh-Anne but I wasn't there. Hassan was, I'm not him and I haven't lived his life." Amma stresses the importance of honesty in writing - "It's not what I would do in that situation, it's what the characters would do and you have to be true to that."
As a piece of filmmaking, A Way Of Life is very assured. The gorgeous location photography contrasts against the more brutal content of the film and this was intentional - "It's a rite-of-passage story and rites of passage stories deserve to be lyrical. We often look back on the past as good even when we know that it wasn't." Amma also wanted the film to look good for a more practical reason - “You have to give the audience something to make them stay in their seats, just so as to keep them for that moment of realisation that Leigh-Anne has.” It’s clear that her tactic has worked on many audiences, even on the one in Toronto where a man walked out in panic after seeing that Stephanie James was sitting next to him. What Amma wants to do most of all is get through to people. “When it works, you’re touching people. And that’s great”. She’s achieved this in spades. If you’re not touched by A Way Of Life, you must be clinically dead.