Throughout the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, indieWIRE will be publishing interviews with filmmakers in the Discovery section of the festival, which TIFF describes as a showcase for new and emerging filmmakers from contemporary international cinema.
Fourteen filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an e-mail interview, and each was sent the same questions. Director Shamim Sarif is at Toronto with her feature film, “The World Unseen,” which is about a rebellious young woman who lives in “a tightly knit community of South Asians in South Africa. Living in limbo between the stark racial poles of apartheid, they have carved out a delicate peace.”
Please tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where do you live now?
I was born in London to South African Indian parents who left South Africa in the early 60’s because of apartheid. My South African heritage was the inspiration for “The World Unseen,” which I wrote first as a novel and then as a screenplay. I’ve published one other novel (Despite the Falling Snow) and have written several screenplays. I’ve spent most of this year in Cape Town, making the film of “The World Unseen,” but generally I live in London with my partner Hanan and our two children.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
In terms of creative work, I began as a writer. I wrote and published short stories at first. When someone called me to ask if they could adapt one of these stories (The Reader) into a screenplay, I decided to try the adaptation myself. That was my first screenplay, and after that I wrote my first novel.
I love film. It was that passion that led me into screenwriting to start with. And I’d always thought about directing my scripts as something I would do ‘some day’. Then I optioned “The Reader,” a delicate story of unrequited love, and the production company in LA called me one day with the great news that they had raised $15 million, but I had to put in two love scenes. In a story of unrequited love, that was a problem…. Anyway, the experience inspired me to get Hanan to turn her talents to producing and we began Enlightenment Productions with a view to keeping the creative integrity of our work as intact as possible. And that became about directing as well.
How did you learn about filmmaking?
I started to take courses (many at Raindance in London) and read everything I could as soon as I began to think seriously about directing. But writing had always my first thought, so I did not spend years in film school or making shorts.
I wrote a movie called “I Can’t Think Straight” early in 2006, and got financing and the go ahead to direct more quickly than I had imagined, so I got the most incredible film school you can have – which is to be thrown onto your own set. I had a fantastic DP in Aseem Bajaj – experienced, creative, sensitive to the story and the cast. I learned a huge amount from him and every day was a steep but thrilling learning curve. And still is. I think that if you stop learning (in any aspect of life) you stop living. That film got held up by financial hassles in post, but we have it back now and will complete it by the end of this year.
What are your goals for the Toronto International Film Festival?
For audiences to respond to the film (in a good way!) “The World Unseen” is about finding your integrity and finding your voice. It would be wonderful to know that those themes resonate with people in some way. That, and to sell all territories would be good…!
Where did the initial idea for your film come from?
From stories my grandmother, parents and other family told me about their experiences growing up in South Africa. From my observations of women in my culture and wider community, and the way in which it was taken for granted (especially amongst the older generation) that most life decisions were not theirs to make.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project and securing distribution for the movie?
I think movie making is a bit like childbirth – when you see the end result, you begin to forget the pain…! But seriously, we had some challenges on set – including wrapping the last day at 4 am, only to find scratches on the negative, meaning we had to call cast back and gather everyone again to re-shoot. But in general, the biggest challenge has been over the previous few years – in working to structure the movie in a way that made financial and creative sense, and pulling together a team who shared our ethos of integrity and passion.
As far as distribution goes, it’s early for us. We have literally finished the movie just in time to make Toronto. But we have had a lot of interest from distributors and agents and we’re working with Andrew Herwitz (“Farehnheit 9/11” and “Life is Beautiful“) of The Film Sales Company on sales. He is passionate about the film, which we’re thrilled about.
What are your creative influences?
My partner, Hanan, not least because she is constantly challenging my thinking. When I write, I often use music to create a mood, an atmosphere or an emotion that I want to capture.
What are some of your favorite films?
My favourite films are intelligent but also satisfying emotionally because that’s where true impact comes. A recent film that I’ve enjoyed on this level are “As It Is In Heaven.”
All time favourites – it’s hard and varies so much. “The Hours” resonated for the way the interior lives of its characters translated to the screen. “Crash” was a brilliant script, delicately spun together. Old comedies like “Bringing up Baby’” and “His Girl Friday” have such fantastic pace and dialogue. One of my eternal favourites is “The Sound of Music.” Great story, great songs, great ending! French cinema is an enduring love too.
What are your interests outside of film?
My family. Literature. I love food and wine so will always seek out the best places for those wherever I am. Travelling.
[Read all of indieWIRE’s Toronto International Film Festival in indieWIRE’s special Toronto ’07 section.]