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It's the Film at Work: Interview with Shamim Sarif and Hanan Kattan

Ellise Fuchs
I Can't Think Straight

"Whatever situation you are in," says Shamim Sarif, "there are opportunities for the human spirit to grow, and I like to have that possibility in the films and the work that we do."

I Can’t Think Straight

Director: Shamim Sarif
Cast: Lisa Ray, Sheetal Sheth, Antonia Frering, Dalip Tahil
US Release Date: 2008-11

The World Unseen

Director: Shamim Sarif
Cast: Lisa Ray, Sheetal Sheth, Parvin Dabas
US Release Date: 2008-02

While many Americans may not be familiar with Shamim Sarif and Hanan Kattan, they are two forces to be reckoned with. A writer/director and producer/entrepreneur, they live and work in London. The two are partners in life and work and have collaborated on two films adapted from Sahmim's novels, I Can't Think Straight and The Unseen World. At present they are at work on a third film adaptation, Beyond Falling Snow, and maintain their own production company, Enlightenment Productions, which produces films and music.

Sarif and Kattan were invited to the 26th Torino GLBT Film Festival to show their two films in the non-competitive section, Open Eyes: Lesbian Romance, curated by Margherita Giacobino. This section is a welcome addition to a film festival that has struggled to make lesbian films more visible. Shamim and Hanan, two savvy and determined women, took time on their short visit to Torino to share some of their ideas about working in film with PopMatters.

I would like to begin by asking you about the differences between writer and director. Is there a distinction between these two people who are both you?

Shamim Sarif: I would say there is a very clear distinction. The upside of being the director of one's own writing is that you have the vision of the characters and the world that you created from day one, since inception. But when it comes to actually being on the set, I try to keep the writer off. That's the point where you have to put your vision into a very different media, it's the film at work. You have to be less precious about what you can cut, when actors have a different conception about a line you might like to try. For me, it's not set in stone. I like to get the benefits of that collaboration that film can bring.

Do you feel that these roles enrich each other?

Sarif: Probably more so at the beginning, during the scriptwriting and the pre-production process. Often there's a depth of stuff to draw on when I'm working with the different departments. Whether it's sound or set design or costumes, there's a history to the character that we can draw on that might not necessarily be there in the layers of the screenplay so I think all of that is wonderful. When we were dressing Lisa Ray in The World Unseen, we had these beautiful dresses and we went for a very subtle theme of lighter colors, whites and washed out, especially at the beginning. And as the story progresses, you see slightly more blues and greens, getting stronger and stronger. Her progression as a character is reflected very subtly in her wardrobe. Those kinds of things were great to discuss and I think came out more strongly because of the novel and my writer's background, if you like.

Does one come more naturally to you?

Sarif: I love all of it. And I feel very privileged to do it all. I think from a purely personality perspective, the writer part comes more naturally, because I was very introverted and perhaps not excellent at communicating. But that's improved along the years because I find a large percentage of directing is managing people. And to be able to manage people well, you have to be able to communicate your vision and get good work out of them. You want people to feel good about what they are doing, so it's partly just learning to say no or to say yes in a way that makes them feel included.

Has your novel writing process changed at this point? Or have you always written with something very visual in mind?

Sarif: I think I have. I never write a novel and think about the screenplay at the same time. I write it for the sake of the novel. But I think instinctively they're quite visual. The scenes translate to the screen fairly easily, but that's just part of my novelistic style, I think.

How did Enlightenment Productions come about?

Sarif: I had optioned my first script to Hollywood. And I didn't have a very “enlightening" experience. They had raised a lot of money for the film, around $15 million. They said it was a very gentle story of unrequited love. They said, “We've raised the money and we need two sex scenes and a nude scene." But, I said, it's a story of unrequited love. And they were like, “Well, that's the way it goes."

It was a real turning point for me and a difficult one to say no to, but in the end, Hanan asked me, “So why are you doing this?" It's for the integrity of the story, ideally. We understand that film is collaborative but that's just really selling out. So at that point I suggested to Hanan that she might like to start producing for me because I knew that she could do it. She didn't know anything about the film business but...

Hanan, you had a business of your own, right?

Hanan Kattan: I had my own company. I had just sold my brands, and I was wondering what I wanted to do next.

So you were ready to make a change.

Kattan: Not such a change. I was thinking of going more into what I knew, not take a detour. But I also really wanted Shamim to have the creative freedom to take her vision all the way without having too many producers and people telling her what she should and shouldn't do, what sells and what makes sense in this formulaic Hollywood way.

So what is your definition of a "producer"? Do you feel like you made up this role yourself or did you model yourself on someone?

Kattan: I basically learned on the job. I organize, whether it's fund-raising, whether it's organizing all the production on set, pre-production, post-production, taking it to market, distribution. So it's from beginning to end. I do all the business side of things while Shamim's theme is more the creative side.

You have a creative hand in the work as well.

Kattan: Very much so. I mean, some producers just occasionally come on set. But I'm there every day. I make sure everything is going well. I give Shamim feedback on the shots, on the performances. I'm there for post-production, the editing. I'm involved from beginning to end.

Sarif: She has a very strong creative input. That works for me. I think that a lot of producers do have that, but don't necessarily have the sensibility. With Hanan and I, if we have disagreements, we have disagreements. It's not possible for everyone to be in accord 100%. At that point if it's a creative decision, I might push the point. But it really helps to have an outside person who knows what you are trying to achieve because sometimes you are too deeply in it.

I'd like to ask about I Can't Think Straight and The World Unseen. They are two different genres, a romantic comedy and a period piece, both featuring the same two actresses. How did that happen?

Sarif: Lisa [Ray] had always been attached to The World Unseen. And we happened to shoot I Can't Think Straight first, where she played the role of Tala. But we really knew we were going to work together on The World Unseen from quite early on. I was happy with that decision. I did cast around because even though I thought Sheetal [Sheth] would be great for the role of Amina, I thought, well, maybe I should be looking elsewhere and so we looked around. But I think what Sheetal brought to the role is a sense of youth and vulnerability. And you get a sense that, yes, here's this girl who's built her own life, but there's this core of vulnerability that I thought was very lovely. The chemistry between them is great on screen, so we thought we would go for it.

I think you were really spot on regarding this one.

Sarif: Plus, neither of them plays a role like the other one in I Can't Think Straight so I knew that their acting ability was excellent.

Shamim Sarif and Hanan Kattan

I have a question about the male characters in both films. In I Can't Think Straight, the two fathers were very calm in contrast to the hysterical mothers. Similarly, there is this lovely character Jacob in The World Unseen, along with Amina's supportive father. So, why all these gentle men?

Sarif: Well, I think a couple of things. One is that in I Can't Think Straight, which is loosely based on our story, that was our experience. I mean, not quite as wonderful, but the men were more practical and a little more accepting.

Kattan: They were much gentler in their reaction than our mothers.

Sarif: Our mothers are very much keepers of the tradition and worried about what people will say. So we wanted to reflect that experience. Secondly, I've always felt a lack of role models for men, if you like, as far as men who can assert their masculinity and their strength without being abusive or angry. I also wanted to explore that, especially in terms of Eastern men, because they often have that portrayal in films or in books, as being very hardcore or macho. I thought it would be nice to give another role. As my kids are growing up, I'd like them to see another character like Jacob or like Amina's father. I can say that's a good guy to be like.

I also notice that music plays an important role in your films. I read about the difficulties you encountered finding the music you wanted for the lovemaking scene in I Can't Think Straight. I'd also like to hear the story behind Leonie Casanova, the singer/songwriter you've been working with.

Sarif and Kattan (together): Amazing.

Sarif: In terms of the lovemaking scene in I Can't Think Straight, I had in mind a couple of songs in Arabic. We tried to get the rights and they sent back emails saying, “Okay, is this a scene with two women and their husbands?" And we said, “No. Just two women." And their answer was no. I was too risky for them. So Hassan said, “You've always wanted to write a song. Why don't you write a song?" And I thought, "Well, it's not really ideal to do it in post production and..."

Kattan: Let me just backtrack here a moment. Shamim plays the piano brilliantly. And she always writes and directs with music in mind. Even her editing is very musically driven. When she is in rehearsals with her actors, she always gives them the music she has in mind for characters in the film. Everyone is in sync musically and creatively. This is why I made this suggestion.

Sarif: Music is really a kind of shorthand for me. It helps me when I'm writing as well. So yes, I wrote some lyrics and Hanan had them translated and then we went and recorded them.

Kattan: For I Can't Think Straight, we had mainly female singer/songwriters, all very strong. But we couldn't get someone who wanted to record or release the soundtrack so then I convinced Shamim that we should do it ourselves under our own Enlightenment Records. We went to the studio and recorded the songs with Leonie Casanova, who made music for both our films and also acted in The World Unseen. She has become a very good friend. We created the label and now she has signed up to Enlightenment Records as well.

Is it true that you heard her perform live one night at some small venue?

Kattan: Yes, it was her first time. A friend of ours who knew her boyfriend at the time insisted we go. We were tired and she was going on late, but we decided to go. We were just stunned by her, by her incredible lyrics, performance, sound, and music. We immediately approached her that night.

Sarif: Actually, I was thinking, "Well, that would be nice when we're ready," but Hanan just pounced on her. She went up to her and said, “Hi, we're making a movie and we'd like you to do a song for it." She said, “Okay. Sure."

Kattan: We began exchanging emails. She reacted very well to the script and the novels. She came up with the song “Broken" at the time and then “Little Feeling" for I Can't Think Straight.

She was a great discovery. Is her career taking off now?

Kattan: It is. She was an investment banker originally and then decided to focus on her music. She's a very bright woman.

The World Unseen

At the center of both these films is the idea of taking risks in order to be true to oneself.

Sarif: I think it's an essential theme in my work because at a certain point, it became more risky not to be true to yourself. That's in terms of, for example, my relationship with Hanan. I think there is an element of risk in breaking the mold. It is very important to do that because that's the way progress and excitement and great art and all of these things happen. In these movies, especially in I Can't Think Straight, that takes the form of an awakening sexuality. I think less so in The World Unseen, which is more of a meeting of minds, though definitely on Amina's side, there is a very strong romantic attraction. But it's more symbolic about opening perceptions and breaking some molds that we all just accept.

I think it is also ingrained in our society to put all the bad stuff aside. We don't want to age or have much to do with pain. To face my biggest demons and be honest with myself, I may have to face who I really am. This could cause some deep pain and so, it is not necessarily embraced by society.

Sarif: A good many religions and ways of looking at the world say that life is suffering, so let's just go through it and do the best you can and sacrifice. I don't think that's true. I think life can be a very peaceful thing and we are particularly lucky that we don't have to struggle with finding our food every day or being in a bad political situation. But whatever situation you are in, there are opportunities for the human spirit to grow, and I like to have that possibility in the films and the work that we do.

How was it for you to adapt a literary work such as The World Unseen, which was published in 2001?

Sarif: I think it was fine. I had experience writing screenplays, which made a big difference, rather than just going at it as a novelist. The key for me was to figure out what was the core theme, what am I trying to say in this work and how do I get there? Because the novel was written quite visually it was easy to keep some scenes pretty much intact as they were in terms of their look and feel. But other things had to go because there are a lot of different subplots and characters in The World Unseen and I didn't want it to be a three-hour epic. I wanted it to be something that reflected the core theme of integrity and being true to yourself. For me it was a happy process. I enjoyed it. It wasn't painful to lose certain things

What did you lose?

Sarif: There were a couple of family members: Omar has a sister who was mentally ill and has a previous history. There was a little more of a backstory about Jacob, and a couple of other backstories, but the main theme between Amina and Miriam remained intact.

I read that you will be adapting yet another novel, Despite Falling Snow.

Sarif: We have a finished script. It is a different feel from the novel. There was a lot of adaptation. Again, I think it's very cinematic. The novel moves between post-Stalinist Russia and present-day America and the story unfolds a little bit with each one. Hopefully, by the end of each section, you are on a hook and you want to go onto the next one. That was a tough screenplay to write. It took me a while. But it's there.

In the meantime, we are just finishing editing on a documentary based around TEDxHolyLand, which I'll have Hanan tell you about. It's a conference that Hanan started in Jerusalem.

Have you wrapped on that project?

Kattan: We're doing some work online and we'll be finishing next week. So I hope we'll be taking it to some festivals.

Did you do all the filming in Israel?

Kattan: In Palestine and in Israel.

Can you describe the project for us?

Kattan: TEDxHolyLand is part of the TED events that we have already worked on. Shamim has spoken at several. We met my Israeli partner, Liat [Aaronson] at TEDIndia and decided to do TEDxHolyLand, bringing Palestinian and Israeli women together in East Jerusalem, where normally they don't get the chance to come together or to have a voice internationally, or even locally. SHamin had never worked on a documentary before but we thought it might be great to share it with people internationally versus it being a very localized event in a TED format. As a result, we did that, then we went back again and did more interviews with some very interesting women.

Is documentary a direction you think you might want to go?

Sarif: No, not really. I guess I can't say no. I did enjoy the process. I think there are many things to explore, but I'm in love with the fictional side of things. Yet I really enjoyed this process more than I had expected. I wasn't sure what would come out of it, not working with a set narrative concerned me at the beginning. Having said that, there's an amazing flexibility to see what you can get out of people. I think it was very inspiring. Here are women who are not waiting for peace. They are not waiting for politicians 60 years later. They are making their own changes and again it's a message of hope and of human potential that is an important story to get out there from a difficult region.

How it is for you two as a couple working together? How has motherhood changed your way of working?

Sarif: Of course, your children are always then at the forefront of your life, but I think the wonderful thing about us working together as a couple is that we can work together as a family. So if we need to go and shoot a movie in South Africa, we can all go. We are both working on it and in some cases the children are working on it because they've acted in both of our movies a little bit. It's a great experience for them, I think, as well. We try not to bring too much upheaval, but I think it's fun for them to have moms who are into a lot of different creative things. And they are very much a part of our working life and obviously part of our daily lives.

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