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BFi London Film Festival
Opening Gala film - A UNITED KINGDOM - press conference
About the project?
David Oyelowo: It wasn’t an easy project to get off the ground. The images in Susan Williams’ book Colour Bar arrested me and it became an obsession.
Amma Asante: I believe I’ve created a balance between the personal and the political. The love story allows intimacy and the background should be political in some way, like Belle.
Rosamund Pike: I loved the sheer personality of Ruth, her spirit is so gorgeous. The faces in the photographs [Colour Bar] – I was moved to tears by them. I saw the love and underneath what it had cost them. She has tremendous pluck – it feels dated but it’s a word of the time for the quality she had. She went for it heartfelt with her commitment to her love and her marriage.
Jack Davenport: Playing Sir Alastair Canning – play people who embody images of empire who are like pantomime villains. Because the story is true, I had no qualms having a go at this character. What he did was not approximate, it was appalling.
Both our characters [his and the character played by Tom Felton] are a little unsure, they are working from a manual [on the status quo] that is increasingly out of date. If it was fictional this would look unbelievable. No one made this up, this actually happened.
Jessica Oyelowo: They fully believed in what they were doing but their world is crumbling. It’s a story close to David and my heart.
Tom Fenton: I don’t see them as villains. They are a by-product of the system of the times, working out of fear for the status quo.
Amma Asante: The shift in attitudes happened almost overnight. Seretse is one of the greatest events.
Laura Carmichael: Ruth reminds me of my grandmother – they were women who lived through the war and found a bravery that surprised their parents.
Reaction in Botswana?
Amma Asante: It was comforting for them that it was being told through a woman of colour, they knew that it was a great untold story. The DNA of Botswana runs through the film. We tried to earn the respect of the people throughout all the steps of making the film. We found a generational divide in knowledge of the story. It is a residue of colonial history that gets lost, which makes it doubly important to get it right.
Diversity a theme of this year’s London Film Festival?
David Oyelowo: All we see here on this film is a reflection of the country we live in. It should not be special that Amma is directing this film – though it is to me, of course. Women are 50% of the population and that is not a minority. I hope people can see themselves in Ruth and Seretse, see their country’s history, see us as people of African descent and how that intersects with British history. We are proud to call ourselves British and African. With time, black women directors will become less special.
Amma Asante: Pathe are promoting diversity with Selma and Mandela. There are those that do and those that talk about it. That goes for producers, financiers bringing their weight to this story, their profile, box office and importance.. It’s a multi-pronged solution that includes audiences, us….
Rosamund Pike: Also distributors. It’s not put in the love story bracket but in the same one as 12 Years a Slave, which bears no resemblance. The goal is for this to be seen in the cannon of love stories in terms of genre, it should be given parity with films more like it in subject matter.
Amma Asante: There are more women directors than previously but still not a lot. The proportion of black female directors has doubled, but only to 1.4% and black directors as a whole as around 7%. Women are not a minority, we play a part in getting men into cinemas. We won’t always direct female stories but seeing things through the female gaze should not be an odd thing.
The majority of stories are about men, white, of a certain age, and diversity is challenging that. There are other realities. My default experience is female. Diversity is not removing people but allowing space for others to join and have the same privileges.
David Oyelowo: With Rosamund’s reaction to the photos I knew we were both on the same page with a desire TO see the story well and truthfully told, a celebration of two people we admired. Being in love is an exhilarating feeling so it’s exhilarating to see love on screen, to celebrate unashamedly how powerful love is. There is laughter, chemistry, joy.
Rosamund Pike: In the scene in the hotel, which is whites only, Seretse makes a joke about his dispensation to be there, they hear music from the bar where they can’t go together and they dance – we just did that spontaneously – it converts it into something to laugh about.
Jack Davenport: We’re used to representations of lust on screen and we get tired of the trope that love conquers all, but, yeah, it does and they did, and this incredible against-all-the-odds, deep love helped topple an entire empire. Emotional things say a lot more.
Amma Asante: The script – I felt that nothing should come without it passing through the prism of the couple’s love. For example, the scene in the House of Commons wth Prime Minister Attlee ,where his objections are expressed by saying Seretse and Ruth should not be allowed to be in bed together. I tried to hold onto that, I tried to ensure that they were seen against a strong backdrop of politics.
It’s a balanced story and it stays true to the book and the belief that it is not just about romantic love, it’s also about paternal love, love of country, a woman falling in love with his country. Everything is seen through the prism of one of these types of love.
A UNITED KINGDOM is the Opening Gala of the BFI London Film Festival and screens on 5, 6 and 11 October.
It is released on 25 November 2016 in the UK to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Botswana’s independence.
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