Ines Johnson-Spain’s documentary Becoming Black follows her quest to discover her Togolese roots. More than seven years in the making, it tracks Johnson-Spain as she pieces together the secrets surrounding her childhood, her mother’s affair and her experiences of growing up as a Black child of white parents in the 1960s GDR
Ahead of our EXBlicks screening of Becoming Black at Lichtblick Kino this Wednesday, September 30, Olivia Logan caught up with Johnson-Spain about her film.
You say your background was taboo in your family. How much was it talked about in your family before making the documentary?
I learnt everything during the making. I didn’t even know that my mother and adoptive father had separated, that I was in a children’s home, or how my parents got back together. I was in a children’s home in Leipzig and then Bernau for three years after I was born, then my mother and adoptive father adopted me. Piecing together the details is hard. I tried to remember with my adoptive father, because my mum died when I was 20.
The making of the documentary was the first time that my adoptive father and I spoke about my upbringing. Before, he wasn’t open to the discussion. I think it was a question of the stage he was at in his life. He had been ill, and the discussion allowed him to confront this part of his life. Of course I had asked my parents before about my upbringing, but when I started making the documentary, this was the moment that we were ready to have a discussion.
When did you decide to make the movie?
I was working on the film for more than seven years. When it started I intended on making another film about my paternal grandfather, who was a resistance fighter against the French in Benin. When I was working on it I noticed that I was having trouble positioning myself in the film. I finally decided that I had to tell my own story before I could talk about my African family. I began to focus on the taboo in my family about my upbringing. When I started to write about it, I realised I couldn’t tell the story without including the political implications. The deeper I went the more I realised that my story wasn’t just a personal one – it’s very much related to structural racism. I felt that the story could be interesting for more people. I wanted to use my story to broaden the perspective around structural racism and family taboo.
Has your perception of your own identity developed since making the documentary?
It is still an ongoing process. You have to re-define your identity again and again if you live in a society where you have to find your place, even though people define the ‘norm’ in a way that does not include you. When I was a child I just tried to fit in with the children around me, I couldn’t understand why I didn’t fit in. When I realised that I didn’t fit in, there was a long period where I ignored the whole subject.
Of course, it was very much related to where I came from and what it means to have a father from an African country and, finally, how society understands or judges that aspect of me. It was a long process to understand how I internalised racist society. When I began making the film, I had to realise how far I was from accepting who I am and finding a place where I could appropriate my own being and be independent from how white society defined me. The process is continuous. Identity is never cemented.
Why do you think your parents didn’t explain your background to you?
After my mother had an affair, they broke up and a year later they decided to get back together. They never worked through these hurtful feelings and period of their lives. They thought they could ignore it and it would disappear, but there I was. I think this was the initial reason. After a while it got easier not to talk about it, easier to ignore it than face it.
On the other hand, I think it is rooted in this culture of silence and denial. It was easy in the GDR not to discuss certain problems. The fact that my white parents had a Black child was not a discussion. It was unbelievable to me that no adults around me were discussing this fact. Now, I understand that it was also due to this GDR mentality of not forming close relationships with others, a culture of distrust.
The fact that my white parents had a Black child was not a discussion.
The GDR had state-enforced norms, everything that deferred from this norm was a threat to the state. White parents with a Black child was already something that people did not trust, but as it did not conform with state policy, it was not discussed. If friends or colleagues would have asked, ‘Who is Ines’ father?’ the subject would have been present for them, they would have been forced to face it. It was strange to me that loving people could create a situation where there was such an open secret. This was one of the reasons I had to face it on a political level, not just a personal level.
What were the challenges of making the documentary?
I had to question my whole understanding of myself. Lots of things that I believed about my identity turned out to be misunderstood. I had to redefine myself and question what it meant to be a Black woman or a Black person. That was a long and painful process, to bring light to a dusty image of my childhood, my upbringing and my youth. Dealing with this was very difficult but also very liberating.