Becoming Black (a world premiere in IDFA Luminous) has one of those jaw dropping storylines that you find from time to time in documentaries about families.
The film deals very frankly with its writer-director Ines Johnson-Spain’s experiences growing up as a black woman in the GDR in the 1960s. Her father was from Togo and had come to East Germany to study. That’s where he met her mother with whom he had an affair. The mother, who was already married, looked into having an abortion and eventually put Ines into care. Her husband was devastated that his wife betrayed him. However, Ines was eventually brought back to live at home, a young black girl in a world full of whites.
East Germany may have been a communist country but that didn’t lessen the prejudice Ines encountered as she grew up. There was a paradox here. East Germans revered African independence leaders like Patrice Lumumba but they didn’t like having black-skinned people in their own communities.
The GDR claimed that racism didn’t exist in the country but that wasn’t Ines’ experience. Teachers, though, would tell her that the darker pigment of her skin was some sort of freak occurrence.
“For me, it is a very complex story and nobody is really to blame for it,” Ines, now based in Berlin and a successful scene painter on Wim Wenders and Peter Greenaway movies as well as a documentary maker, says of her unlikely background. She didn’t realise that she was of African heritage until, one day, as a 12-year-old, she and her bother used a lock pick to open a room in the family house and found the papers detailing the circumstances of her birth.
“It was a huge shock. I was totally overwhelmed. I kind of faded out of myself. I just couldn’t see it as real. This idea that my biological father was supposed to be an African was so far from my mind that I couldn’t handle it.”
Her immediate reaction was to hide her feelings. She refused to tell her parents anything personal and vowed that she would make her own decisions. “My childhood was over. I took my life in my own hands. It had a lot of consequences because I had no trust for my parents or for a lot of other people.”
Ines’ mother sometimes treated her brutally. Her adopted father, who appears in the film, was kinder and more protective. “Of course, he may have made mistakes but I am so thankful that he was giving me this present of being able to be in front of the camera to talk about something that was, for him, so painful – the biggest taboo in his life.” He had split up briefly from Ines’ mother but they got back together again.
When she was in her early 20s in 1987, Ines married a friend from the west (an Irishman she had met through the punk scene) in order to get out of East Germany. “For me, this was a very important decision. This time was over. I didn’t wait until the country would fade out (in 1989).” She went to live in West Berlin.
“I was in the strange situation that when the Wall came down, I was totally upset because I thought all my past would come over me again. I went home and was crying for the whole night.”
Ines’ mother died in a car accident in 1983. However, she has stayed in touch with her stepfather. He had a very tough time initially when the Wall came down, losing his job and way of life. He was a fervent believed in the political dogma of the GDR. However, he survived. “I have to say, he has a good heart,” his step-daughter says of him. “He found his own way.”
As for her Togolese father Lucien, “He knew I was born. my mum told him.” Lucien wanted to adopt Ines but the East German state wouldn’t allow it and her parents tried to make sure he never contacted her. After she left the GDR, she finally met him. “I wasn’t blaming him for anything. For me, it was just that I wanted to meet him to know where I was from. In the end, it turned out to be a very wonderful relationship for 20 years.”
Ines also discovered she had a huge number of step-brothers and sisters. He was a womaniser, a man of obvious charm who ended up having 10 children from several different women. Ines helped bring the extended family together. The father’s upbringing hadn’t been easy. As a resistance fighter against the French colonialists, he was often away or in prison. He wasn’t close to his mother either. However, his extended family in Togo were quick to embrace her.
She may have grown up in Germany but she has a strong affinity toward Africa and visits her relatives there regularly. “I visited first in 1990. It was totally overwhelming. I just tried to function. As I was quite experienced in not allowing my feelings to show, I succeeded quite well in Togo…it was so much the opposite from what I lived in the GDR. I came there and my new-found family would just accept me the way I am because I was the daughter of Lucien. For me, this was such a new experience, I couldn’t deal with it, this positive feeling of being overwhelmed with all this generosity.”
Ines was determined to direct Becoming Black herself. She wanted to tell hew own story in her own way, not to become the subject for somebody else. “It was difficult, of course, a very difficult procedure. I always needed to have a distance toward this very emotional subject.”