November 7, 2008

Interview with Shamim Sarif, Director of The World Unseen and I Can't Think Straight

Most directors dream of having one film released during any year but English director Shamim Sarif has pulled a Clint Eastwood and has two films coming out here in the US within two weeks of each other. Odd? Yes. Especially due to the fact that both films are about gay women and star the same women. The first film, The World Unseen opens today, in NY, LA and Toronto. (It opens in SF on Nov 14 and in Portland on Nov 21)

The World Unseen tells a very different story of 1950s apartheid South Africa. It's the story of two Indian women one, Amina, living a unconventional life as a cafe owner with a black business partner, and Miriam a very traditional woman trapped in a difficult marriage. Amina is independent, wears pants and bucks all the conventions. Miriam takes care of her husband and children but is miserable. Amina shows Miriam the possibilities of independence and personal freedom and gives her the tools to change her life, which leads unexpectedly to romance.

The film is a bit slow at times but the characters are really different and interesting. It's based on director Shamim Sarif's novel of the same name. Check out the trailer:

Shamim took some time to talk with Women & Hollywood about the craziness of opening two films within two weeks of each other (review of I Can't Think Straight when it opens)

Women & Hollywood: Two films, the same actresses, dealing with lesbian issues opening within two weeks of each other. Are you crazy?

Shamim Sarif: There was no reasoning behind this release pattern. It wasn't about a woman's story or a lesbian story or anything like that because I wasn't looking at it from a distribution point of view. I was looking at two strong stories and these two got financed. To be honest, my partner and I and the executive producers and the lead actresses never looked at it as oh, we're doing another lesbian film or anything like that. They looked at each one -- they are very different genres -- one is a period piece and one is a romantic comedy. They looked at the great, strong roles.
W&H: Which did you make first?
SS: I shot I Can't Think Straight first and it got stuck in limbo and then we did The World Unseen. Then I got back I Can't Think Straight and both were in post-production at the same time.
W&H: What do you mean by I got it back?
SS: We had a first investor, a guy who turned out to be a crook and we found out he hadn't been paying bills. He had the negative and we had the story rights because he never paid me. So it took us over a year to fight him in court. I was very tenacious about that but in the meantime we made The World Unseen. We literally finished them both about a month ago.
W&H: How did you not know the bills weren't being taken care of?
SS: The actors were paid so we didn't know what was happening until afterwards. A lot of stuff gets done on faith- you rent a location, they send you an invoice, they don't expect payment for 30 days. The movie took 25 days to shoot. Then you're sitting in a nightmare.
The happy story about this is that The World Unseen was a much better financed film purely by female financiers. They are not gay women, they are saavy business women who just loved the book and wanted to that vision onscreen. One of the investors crossed over to I Can't Think Straight and we got another one to come in and I was able to finish the movie.
W&H: How much were the budgets?
SS: Under $3 million for The World Unseen and less than $1 million for I Can't Think Straight.

W&H: Did you write both scripts?
SS: I Can't Think Straight started as a novel and I got stuck and then I wrote it as a script to help myself with the structure. But I wanted it to be lighter than a novel so I worked with a good friend Kelly Moss who has a fantastic sense of humor. She really helped with the funny parts of the movie.
W&H: Is it based on your life?
SS: Kind of. It's slightly autobiographical.
W&H: Hollywood doesn't think that women's stories are universal. We are still seen as the other, as a niche. What was your experience with that?
SS: It didn't occur to me that it wouldn't be financially viable to write a woman's story. It's just what came to me. These strong characters. For The World Unseen I wanted to write about integrity and about finding your voice which is something women traditionally need to do especially at the time and place the movie is focused on. For me, the whole journey of the movie was Miriam's, finding her independence and finding her voice and the person who helps her do that is someone who has already found her voice. I had a strong vision for the novel and having strong material to start with was crucial because people will respond, or not, to the quality of the story. In the indie world the quality of the story is paramount.
W&H: How did you wind up with the same actresses starring in both films?
SS: I knew I wanted to work with Lisa (Ray) again. She had always been in my mind for The World Unseen. I did look at other actresses for Amina only because I didn't want to go back to what was comfortable for the wrong reasons. In the end I thought Sheetal Sheth had the combination of vulnerability and strength that I wanted for the role.
W&H: I Can't Think Straight is chock full of stereotypes and you really open up the conversation about culture and respect while challenging the stereotypes. Was that your intention?
SS: Definitely. I wanted to set it within an Arab family. First of all I don't think we get many depictions of upper class, well educated Arabs, and having been a part of the world for a while through my partner I was frankly horrified at what was said behind closed doors from people. I wasn't hearing that anywhere so I wanted to explore it a little bit. It's an issue for me that Palestine is not free and that they can't come to some kind of resolution on the situation. Both sides need to come to the table.
W&H: You worked with many women on your film which is quite unique.
SS: There was a big difference between The World Unseen and I Can't Think Straight which had a very male centric team around that first investor.
W&H: Was there a different experience on the sets?
SS: I Can't Think Straight was not a good experience. Not because there were mostly men but because they were just very chauvinistic. They were not remotely supportive of the vision. They seemed more interested in setting up their own projects instead of setting up the camera. It was a mess except for the director of photography.
W&H: Do you think they didn't respect you because you were a woman or a new director or both?
SS: I think so because they were "those kind of guys." There were a few exceptions but were mostly not supportive. It was very different on the second film where everybody was pulling together.
W&H: I read that The World Unseen is partially based on your grandmother?
SS: It's not actually my grandmother. The Miriam character is closer to my grandmother in terms of the isolated life but she never had the "opening up" experience, certainly not sexually. Amina was based on a real character at that time. All I kept hearing about is that she wore trousers, never got married and drove taxis for a living. I thought how does someone like this exist at that time? That was how I came up with the backstory of her grandmother who was raped on her way from S. Africa to India and raised Amina to be self sufficient so she didn't go through the same thing. Also, Amina's father doesn't care what people say and I think the combination together with her natural character gave her the strength to live her own life.
I didn't want to make it a big issue that she is gay and in fact that's what tips her relationship with Miriam into romance. It's not about Amina's sexuality it's about Miriam's journey to independence. I thought it would be nice to have movie where a character is gay and it not be the be all and end all.
W&H: You have a production company with your partner. What do you have in development?
SS: We have a bunch of projects at different stages all with strong female characters. The next film is based on my second book Despite the Falling Snow and is set in Cold War Russia. It's a story of love and betrayal.
W&H: Why do you think that we have such a hard time with films that star female protagonists?
SS: In Europe, especially in France, they have strong women. I don't know because its unfathomable to me. I love women, I love female characters. I like good make characters too but women hold a special place for me and I am starving for good strong female characters.
Film opens today in NY at the Quad and in LA at Laemmle's Beverly Hills.