Director Shamim Sarif‘s “The World Unseen” is adapted from her novel, and is set in 1950s apartheid South Africa amongst the Indian community. The themes are universal – that whatever family, societal or even political constraints you find around you, you can question those constraints, and then take small steps to change them. Her other film, “I Can’t Think Straight,” meanwhile is a contemporary urban romantic comedy set in London and Jordan. It is a love story between two women of different Eastern cultures and whether or not they can come to terms with the implications of accepting their own sexuality. Sarif describes it as “a light-hearted piece.” Regent Releasing opens “I Can’t Think Straight” on November 21 and “The World Unseen” this Friday, November 7 in limited release.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I’ve always been passionate about film, and telling stories. I began as a screenwriter and then moved into writing novels. The process of adapting those novels to screenplays was the kind of work I loved – challenging and satisfying. As my script writing developed, I began to long to direct, and began taking courses, studying movies, reading books. But I never expected to get the opportunity to direct my first feature so soon – but when that chance came, there was no way I could let it pass by!
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making “The World Unseen” and “I Can’t Think Straight…”
I think my ultimate goal was to tell a strong story and make the characters engaging. The basis for that is the writing, but as a director I then wanted to keep out of the way of the story and was consciously aware of keeping the camera movements as invisible as possible, even when they were chosen to evoke a mood. I admire directors like Robert Redford, who are very clean and clear in their filmmaking. At the other end of the spectrum, directors like Pedro Almodovar and Wong Kar Wai are thrilling, but that kind of artistry was not my goal for these two films.
I would like the movies to find a wide audience (every filmmaker’s wish!) but more particularly because out festival experiences suggest that people have really connected with the underlying themes of being true to yourself, having integrity and courage, no matter how specific the particular setting of the films.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in securing distribution?
Developing these projects was hard work, but the brunt of that was borne by my amazing wife and partner in Enlightenment Productions, Hanan Kattan. She is a force of nature, and if you want her to do something, you just have to tell her it is impossible. So she listened to a lot of excellent advice, learned from it and ignored some of it and that combination let her get to the point where we raised the financing. When it came to distribution, we got a top sales agent in the States who got us a straight to video deal with a good company. But Hanan was adamant that the movies should get even a small theatrical release, and was dogged about seeking out the right distributor, and negotiating with them and now we have two films released theatrically in the same month!
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
I don’t have too many limits. I would like to do an action adventure story, but what I know is that anything I do would have to be character-driven.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
For now, being a writer and director is very fulfilling creatively. And there is so much to learn constantly about both those art forms and the craft of them, that I think that will keep me busy for a while. Having said that, I wrote some song lyrics for I Can’t Think Straight, and I would love to do more of that too. On the industry side, this has been a year of branching out from production of films (via Enlightenment Productions, co-owned by Hanan Kattan and myself) into selling and marketing the films (via Enlightenment Films) and even producing the soundtracks!
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
To me, independent film is less defined by budget and means work that is independent in thought and emotion and style. That rejects the hegemony of the studio system which tries to work a formula. I guess that the higher the budget goes, the less independent movies tend to be, because more and more people have an input on casting, cutting and everything else.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Do everything you can to make sure your work is good. That the scripts you write or choose to work on are the best they can be. And then pursue everything in your life with passion. When you come up against an obstacle, take a breath and figure out how to get around it. And if you can find a producer who is as passionate as you are, then you are really lucky!
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
I think the best moments for me came while watching the movies with audiences. It was wonderful to feel that all the work I’d put in to create a mome t of humour, or tension, did finally translate that way to people watching.