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Shamim Sarif:'World' view
2009-06-24

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by Brenda Kinoshita. Pictured: Shamim Sarif ( left ) and business/life partner Hanan Kattan.

Writer/director Shamim Sarif seems to do it all, and brilliantly. She is an equally successful author ( the Pendleton May First Novel Award, Betty Trask Award ) , screenwriter and film director ( World Cinema Best Director at Phoenix Film Festival, and Best Director at Clip ( Tampa ) Intl. Film Festival ) . She has written several published short stories and notable music lyrics, has script-edited a children's TV series and directed music videos. Sarif received an Afterellen.com 2008 Visibility Award for "International Lesbian/Bi Woman of the Year."

Having seen her first novel, The World Unseen, published to critical acclaim, Sarif subsequently adapted the screenplay for the feature film of The World Unseen, which she also directed, just after making her directorial debut with I Can't Think Straight, another of her novels which she adapted for the screen. The World Unseen was given the Audience Award at the Miami Gay & Lesbian film festival in 2008, and I Can't Think Straight won the same award at that film festival just last month.

The World Unseen is a love story about two Indian women in 1950s South Africa; the other film, I Can't Think Straight, is a contemporary love story involving a Palestinian Christian and an Indian Muslim. Both star one-time Bollywood actor Lisa Ray alongside American-born Sheetal Sheth.

Partly inspired by Sarif's grandmother and the lack of choices she had as an Indian woman in apartheid South Africa, The World Unseen tells the story of free-spirited lesbian café owner Amina and dutiful and introverted wife Miriam; what happens with their unexpected attraction pushes them to question the rules that bind them.

I Can't Think Straight is an exuberant, touching romantic comedy about the clashing of two worlds and cultures. Tala, a London-based Palestinian, is preparing for her elaborate wedding in Jordan when she meets Leyla, a young British Indian woman who turns her world upside down. The movie is heavily autobiographical and follows the relationship between the two women as they come to terms with their desire for each other.

Sarif spoke with Windy City Times about her movies, and her next project.

Windy City Times: You are a novelist, a screenwriter, lyricist, director, a parent, a wife. You and Hanan [ Kattan ] are partnered in so many ways: you share your lives, you have children and you are business partners. How do you maintain your individuality when there is so much togetherness? Do you have firm boundaries between work and your personal life, or does one feather into the other?

Shamim Sarif: It's a constant process of adjustment between the juggling of all these elements. Just when one plate is spinning well, another one starts to fall! But I love them all and feel privileged to be able to do everything I do, so it's worth the effort. As for boundaries and individuality—Hanan and I are very different people but everything between us is symbiotic. There would be no films or production company without her, and also no family. It is stressful at times, because we are both passionate about our work and bring it home with us. But it is also wonderful to have that intensity with your partner. It would feel odd to me to have a completely separate working life that she could never understand or relate to.

WCT: What can you tell us about your next project, The Dreaming Spires? Is it true that you'd like Sienna Miller to star in it?

SS: The Dreaming Spires is a story of unrequited love between a blind female English professor and her American student set in Oxford just after the War. It's delicate and poetic, I think and, like The World Unseen and I Can't Think Straight, touches on themes of integrity. But the love story is really about how one person can help another see things differently.

I did mention Sienna Miller to [ one ] journalist, along with several other very fine British actresses that I thought would be wonderful for the role. But she fixed on that name, perhaps because it sells newspapers! It's a very character-driven piece.

WCT: Will the Dreaming Spires will be your first film which isn't lesbian-centered? How do you feel your lesbian fans will accept this?

SS: The Dreaming Spires is not a lesbian story, and part of me felt strangely apologetic for that, especially since so many fans are lesbians and have done so much to support Hanan and myself along the way. But it is based on the first short story I ever published and was [ in very different form from ] the first screenplay I ever wrote. So this story is important to me, and is authentically something that grew within me. Not an attempt to be "mainstream" for the sake of it. I look at The World Unseen and I Can't Think Straight as mainstream movies anyway!

WCT: Novelist Sarah Waters' recent book is not a lesbian story, unlike her previous works. Have you read any of her books?

SS: I am ashamed to say that I have not, though I own most of them! I will be reading them, perhaps this summer. When I appeared at a lesbian book festival here in the UK a few years ago, I was scheduled at exactly the same time as Sarah Waters [ who was reading in another room ] . I was terrified that no one would show up to see me, but they did. … She had a rather long line of fans waiting for signings at the end though!

WCT: Which lesbian writers and characters inspire you? What are you reading right now?

SS: Though I definitely went through a phase where I sought out books with lesbian characters, almost as a way to justify that what I was feeling was acceptable, I don't tend to choose books on that basis any more. Great writing, characters you care about and ideally a strong female character or two attract me. I've always been a fan of Jeanette Winterson—she uses language with a sort of languid precision that is a pleasure to read and absorb. The Passion is one of my favorite books of hers. The Venice setting doesn't hurt. Hanan took me there for the first time for my birthday last year and I fell in love with the city. I am reading another Venetian-set book now, Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon, which reveals one of my not-so-guilty pleasures—crime novels.

WCT: You've just received the Audience Award at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival for I Can't Think Straight, and you received the same award last year for The World Unseen. What does it mean to receive awards like these?

SS: We were in Miami last year, and The World Unseen was so oversold they had to split the signal and show it in two cinemas simultaneously. The reaction was amazing and we were honoured to win the award then. To win it again was a dream and I was thrilled, particularly because they are Audience Awards. That means a lot.

Both the book and DVD versions of I Can't Think Straight and The World Unseen are available at Enlightenment Productions www.enlightenment-productions.com . The books are also available at Amazon.com .


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