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Exclusive interview with 'Belle' director Amma Asante

"Belle" Kicked Off the Athena Film Festival
"Belle" Kicked Off the Athena Film Festival
Chasity Saunders

The Athena Film Festival ended today on Feb. 9, 2014. Yesterday, the festival hosted a special "Awards Ceremony & Reception" at Barnard. Sherry Lansing was the recipient of the Laura Ziskin Award. Other honorees included Callie Khouri Kasi Lemmons and Keri Putnam. Festival co-founders Kathryn Kolbert and Melissa Silverstein were joined by Barnard President Debora Spar, Regina K. Scully, Pat Mitchell, and super producer Debra Martin Chase.

This festival is “A Celebration of Women and Leadership” and Examiner.com had the opportunity to attend the Opening Film and New York Premiere of “Belle” at the Diane Center Event Oval. We also caught up with the BAFTA winning British Film Writer and "Belle" Director, Amma Asante to get her insight on the film.

Why was it important for you to tell the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle?

Because I want generations to come to know that Belle existed and that she was important.

Why did you use BELLE as the title of the film, opposed to using Dido Elizabeth, what was the importance?

Belle was her Mother’s name and I wanted to honor her mother. Dido was a name that she was given once she came to live with her great-uncle. Belle also means beautiful. Belle is the lead in the film and I wanted people to see her and see the name on the screen and think of beauty.

What was the biggest challenge in making a film that’s a period piece?

The biggest challenge was wardrobe and how long it took to dress all of the actors in the film. Another huge challenge was convincing financiers to invest in a film that is a period piece and also had a woman of color as the lead.

How long did it take to film the movie?

I lived in Holland for 18 months filming the movie.

The film though a serious one, has moments where we all laughed, how did you decide on when to throw in those moments with humor to the script?

When I discovered Jane Austin I knew that her influence would be important for this film. I had to show challenges, strife and human conflict while still making sure that you want to stay in your seat and watch her story. The humor was a conscience choice.

Did you get to consult with any living decedents?

Yes, her family helped. The Mansfield family. The painting you see in the film is actually still on display right now in Scotland and I was even able to see the actual will that was left to her. Her family was very important to the film.

What was the process like getting the legal story of Dido Belle?

It was a very long development period. It was important that there was concern and traction on each story line and that we got it right also that we told one story at a time to make sure that the story was balanced.

We hear about what’s happening with slavery and with the massacre that took place, but we never see it on the screen, was that a conscience choice and why?

Yes, I chose not to show the massacre because I didn’t want to lose the tone. I wanted to show that you can communicate the horror without the audience ever seeing it on screen. From the beginning I knew that I didn’t want to see or show that aspect of the story.

*SPOILER ALERT*

There is a scene in the film where Belle is assaulted, was that a true event or did you use your artistic license, if so why?

That particular event was not fact, but it was important for me to show even though it is such a lovely story that she lived in a time that was approaching a new order. It was a time when love marriages were challenging good match marriages and I wanted to show order vs. chaos and the fear of change which was what Dido represented to many at the time.

What makes this story one that needed to be told and one that the audience can relate to, even today?

With Belle, she had to teach people how to love her, the way that she needed to be loved. I believe everyone no matter who or what you are will relate to that.

Why do you feel that it’s important for audiences to see this film?

So that it cannot be said that a movie like this cannot be made with a black lead, it can. So that more actresses like GuGu can have leading roles with a magnitude such as this and show that they can carry the movie entirely on their shoulders. And because it’s a great story and a great film.

How does the distribution for the film look and do you have a release date?

The Distribution looks wonderful, Fox Searchlight is on board with us, our score is done and we have a May 2 release date for the states, that’s Mother’s Day and a June 13 release date for the UK.

For more information about the film visit www.foxsearchlight.com/BELLE

Follow “BELLE” Director Amma Asante on twitter @AmmaAsante.

Chasity Saunders contributed reporting.