Renaissance Woman: Shamim Sarif

She’s an award-winning feature film director, successful novelist, talented screenwriter, and has even dabbled in music – writing lyrics and directing videos. Shamim Sarif, the creator of the popular lesbian films The World Unseen and I Can’t Think Straight, is smart, creative, immensely skilled at her crafts, and making a name for herself in the film industry through her hard work and dedication. She is also the incredibly grateful wife of Hanan Kattan, her partner both professionally and personally. Together, the two women have produced movies that are impressing audiences worldwide and making lesbians everywhere proud to call them members of our community. Here, Cherry Grrl talks to Shamim and discusses her powerful films, passion for what she does, and the benefits of being with a partner who massively supports and believes in her work.

Cherry Grrl (CG): The World Unseen and I Can’t Think Straight were released at the same time and both star Lisa Ray and Sheetal Sheth. In what ways are the two films different from one another in terms of theme and the issues of culture and religion?
Shamim Sarif (SS): They’re completely different genres. The World Unseen (TWU) is a period drama set in 1950s South Africa while I Can’t Think Straight (ICTS) is a contemporary romantic comedy set in London. They share certain themes, such as integrity and being true to yourself, but in quite different ways. The dialogue of ICTS is much more engaged with religion and the political debates of the Middle East, while the politics of apartheid South Africa in The World Unseen is more of a backdrop.

CG: Did you write both at the same time and what was the timeline of filming?
SS: Here’s the confusing part! I adapted The World Unseen from my novel a few years back and we went about trying to get it made. While that process continued I was working on I Can’t Think Straight as both a novel and a script. The script got financed very quickly and we went to work on that as a movie, but the financier was a bit of a crook and we ended up losing control of the project. While we pursued that through court, we set up The World Unseen. While we were finishing TWU, we got back ICTS and so finished both movies almost simultaneously.

CG: What was it about the two lead actresses that made you decide to cast them in your films?
SS:
I enjoyed working with them both in ICTS, and had no doubt they had the ability to almost reverse roles in TWU. Ironically, I only went to Lisa and Sheetal for ICTS after the Arab actress and the British Indian that I thought were most suitable for the roles had issues with doing the love scenes.

CG: Both films have received massive amounts of critical praise. What has your reaction been to the responses so far?
SS:
I get the most excited by the audiences’ responses, which have been amazing. We’ve had some great reviews too and it’s wonderful when critics understand what you’re trying to do, but the greatest achievement for me is feeling an audience hold their breath, or hearing them laugh (in the right places ideally!) in a dark cinema.  In the end, as a filmmaker you want to reach as many people as possible and you want them to enjoy the film.

CG: What was the most difficult aspect of getting your films made?
SS:
Financing, and getting people to believe in us enough to back us. We had good scripts which had received great coverage from agencies but in the end I had two formidable forces on my side. My wife, Hanan, who agreed to produce the movies and inspired everyone she met with her passion and integrity, and Katherine Priestley and Lisa Tchenguiz, who backed TWU financially and showed huge faith in me, in Hanan, and the story.

CG: You mentioned that the original actresses that you had in mind for ICTS had issues with the love scenes. Did you face many challenges during the production of the films due to the lesbian subject matter?
SS:
Casting was an issue for ICTS, which frankly, surprised me. But otherwise, we had no serious issues with anyone. We outsourced our 35mm camera and some crew from India to enable us to shoot on film on a low budget, and I think some of our Indian crew were a little taken aback to see Lisa and Sheetal kissing! But I try not to focus on obstacles that don’t exist in my own mind unless people make their disapproval very obvious.

CG: What is your opinion of the current visibility of lesbians in television and film?
SS:
I live under a rock! Between running our own companies, working on two movies simultaneously and bringing up two kids, I never watch TV. Once a year we get the boxed set of The L Word!  But my sense is that it’s opened up a lot. What I wanted with TWU was to have a movie where one character (Amina) just happened to be gay and where this would be part of the story and not worthy of separate comment. Like no one would ever walk out of any other film and say ‘that was a good heterosexual love story’…we’re not there yet, but I like to pretend we are and hope people follow!

CG: When did you realize that you wanted to be a filmmaker and what has been the most fulfilling aspect of your career choice?
SS:
I always loved film and wrote a screenplay before I wrote my first novel (The World Unseen). Being able to move into directing from that has been an amazing journey, and I credit Hanan entirely with making that possible by finding creative ways to produce our films. I think the most fulfilling thing has been being able to tell the same story in different media. To explore the best ways of handling the core themes, moving from the solitary work of novel-writing, to the very collaborative world of directing.

CG: What was behind your decision to handle all of your film sales directly via your company, Enlightenment Films?
SS:
We had a very good, well-regarded sales agent initially, but it is a very tough market for independent films that don’t have huge advertising and marketing budgets (or any advertising budget!) and so they felt we should go straight to DVD. Hanan’s view was that we would always be part of a slate of films for a conventional sales agent, and that no one would give sales of our movies the attention that we would. And she managed it. 98 percent of indie movies never get a theatrical release in the US but we were able to release both movies last November in major cities.

CG: What are your goals with Enlightenment Records?
SS:
It began as a way to get the music from ICTS out on a soundtrack. Again, getting a deal with a big label was not an option because we had a limited release and resources. We’re both passionate about the talent we had for the soundtrack, and one of the singer/songwriters whose work really moved us was Leonie Casanova.  We feel very privileged to be able to work with her to release her singles ‘Broken’ (from The World Unseen) and ‘Little Feeling’ (from ICTS) ahead of her album release later in the year.

CG: You work with your partner, Hanan Kattan – something we often see within the lesbian community. How do you think your personal relationship affected the outcome of the films and, from your experiences working together, do you recommend working with a spouse to others?
SS:
I am the luckiest person in the world, to be able to work with someone so inspired and passionate about my work and my ability to direct it. I trust Hanan completely, personally of course but also professionally and in terms of her creative input. That’s a rare thing. And we enjoy working together. We like to be around each other. But it is not always easy. Under stress, it can be tough and I have been known to take her for granted when I am busy with a million other things.  So you have to be very aware (not always my forte!).

CG: Are you currently in development of any other films and if so what can you tell us about them?
SS:
We’re working on two projects which I have scripts for. One is a story of passion and betrayal in Cold War Moscow, based on my second book, Despite the Falling Snow.  The other is a love story set in Oxford.

CG: What has the highlight of your professional career been so far?
SS:
I’m lucky I have many wonderful aspects to choose from. The thrill of walking into a bookstore and seeing rows of my first novel on the shelves was a great moment. Calling action on my first day on the job as a director. I feel very fortunate to have had these opportunities and to have been able to share them with Hanan.

CG: What are you future goals regarding your career as a filmmaker?
SS:
Long term, I would love to get to a point where I could make the films that inspire me every year or two and progress as a writer and director. I always want to keep as much autonomy as possible, so I would like Enlightenment Productions to grow into a company known for challenging and inspiring work that is also commercially viable. I don’t see myself as a big studio type of director, but would love a little more time and money on future work (I hope Hanan is taking notes!).

For more information about Shamim, her films, and her upcoming work visit www.enlightenment-productions.com.

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