Shamim Sarif is an award-winning novelist, screenwriter and film director who has spoken at TED events in London, Jerusalem and India. Her and her partner Hanan Kattan are founders of the Sarif-Kattan Foundation, focusing on empowering and educating women and children across the globe. Kattan works alongside Sarif producing all of the films that Sarif directs. (Press materials)
“Despite the Falling Snow” hits theaters in the U.K. April 15. A U.S. release date hasn’t been announced yet.
W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.
SS: “Despite the Falling Snow” is about a young Soviet woman, Katya, who is passionately anti-communist. When she takes a job spying on a Kremlin official, the last thing she expects is to fall in love with him. But while she tries to sort out her feelings for him versus her duty to the Americans, the net is closing around them. I loved that period of history but more than that, I wanted to explore the ways in which love can make us see the world differently and perhaps transcend betrayal.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
SS: I’ve always been drawn to two things — strong female protagonists and political backdrops. Writing about women is natural for me but also I found I wanted more of those stories growing up and just couldn’t find enough satisfying female lead characters, especially in movies.
Katya is heroic but also a lonely young woman who finds love — just in the most unexpected place. And the transformative power of that emotion is life-changing for her, but also life-threatening, because it happens in a political system where thinking for yourself is perceived as dangerous.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
SS: How much time do you have?! In development, the challenges including finding sales and distribution companies who would support any casting for Katya outside a small handful of actresses who are highly paid and highly sought after by studios — and we were a small independent film.
When we cast Rebecca Ferguson, she was Emmy nominated for “The White Queen,” but not yet known for “Mission Impossible 5.” It was only my wife — and producer — Hanan Kattan’s tenacity in raising the budget through more equity than pre-sales that allowed us the freedom to cast more widely.
On set, the biggest issue was that it hardly ever snowed. It increased our budget having to truck in snow technicians and film snow from Hungary to Serbia and then to supplement snowfall in VFX afterwards.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
SS: I do think stories can cast a small light on particular areas of our human experience. In the case of “Despite the Falling Snow,” which deals with how love can make us see the world so differently, perhaps it is just to realize that we can experience that openness and transformation. And for most of us, unlike Katya, we won’t have to make life or death decisions to experience that growth
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
SS: Be passionate or don’t start. Be tenacious or you won’t finish.
The best support you will get is to find a great producer who shares your passion and tenacity and who can push you through the moments when you feel it is never going to come together. I have been so extraordinarily lucky in that respect as I persuaded my wife to produce for me. The only downside is I guess I proved the old Hollywood adage about sleeping with the producer to be right — but only in this case!
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
SS: My first movie, “I Can’t Think Straight,” is a very indie romantic comedy and my second narrative feature, “The World Unseen,” to me, was a step up in scale and tone — a period drama about two women in apartheid South Africa that was selected to premiere at Toronto International Film Festival and went on to win a lot of awards. “Despite the Falling Snow” was again a step up in scale and moved out of the core lesbian love story but also a period drama.
My next film is an all-female action movie called “The Artemis Protocol” and the question that I get asked a lot is “Can you direct action?” There is an ingrained perception that women are not as equipped to handle action or indeed, bigger budgets, and it would be great to see that change soon.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
SS: The funding was a mixture of small private equity investors using a U.K. tax efficient structure, and government tax credits. We are lucky that among our investors are the same two (women) exec producers who showed incredible belief in me when I was a completely unproven director and have stayed with us along the way.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
SS: That is a hard question! It would depend on my mood. Right now, I am reading the novel “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” set in Japan, and the quality of being slightly unhinged by the world around you reminded me of “Lost in Translation” by Sofia Coppola. It hit a mood — the sense of feeling out of place and yet striving to find some human connection, and all with great good humor. So that’s today’s choice.
From this past year, I loved “The Second Mother” by Anna Muylaert and I have heard amazing things about “Parched” by Leena Yadav, which debuted at TIFF.