Shamim Sharif Interview: Controversy and Coming Out

April 2, 2009 by  
Filed under - Home, Features

This year’s London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival at the BFI has had OTB all a-quiver with its superb selection of cinema’s lesser-celebrated niche, and we were lucky enough to attend an exclusive screening of Shamim Sarif’s I Can’t Think Straight and secure an interview with the director herself.

Here Sally McIlhone talks to the inspirational novelist and filmmaker about the controversy surrounding the film’s production, coming out and racism….

OTB: You were involved in the BFI last year with The World Unseen, but I Can’t Think Straight actually got shot prior to this didn’t it?

Shamim Sharif – We shot I Can’t Think Straight the year before The World Unseen. We had a very unscrupulous financier who wasn’t paying anybody along the way and made the shoot very difficult, so the whole thing collapsed after we finished shooting. Then we had to go through a court process to get the movie back. I was all for just forgetting about it and weeping for six months but Hanan (the film’s producer and Sharif’s wife) was very tenacious about going after this guy; that took about a year and a half, so during that time we set up The World Unseen, went on to South Africa and after we’d finished shooting, we got [I Can’t Think Straight] back, so we did the post-production on both films almost simultaneously and then finished them together. It was a crazy time but really wonderful to get [I Can’t Think Straight] back; we thought we wouldn’t see it again at one point.

How difficult was it to adapt I Can’t Think Straight from your novel into the film?

Well, it’s great to have fantastic source material! I was writing screenplays at the same time as I was writing novels so it was a familiar genre to me. It wasn’t a complete switch but it was a lesson in identifying what I wanted to explore and then finding the visual way to do that. It’s definitely not the right thing to just translate scene by scene from the novel to a script, it just won’t work.

So what do you see yourself a? A film director, a novelist, a Renaissance woman?!

I see myself as a storyteller, that’s probably the easiest way to say it. I’m lucky to get to work with these three different media and I love them all. I really wouldn’t want to pick one over the other. It’s really just about communicating a vision and an idea and characters to an audience.

Is there anything else in the works for next year’s LLGFF?

I’m going to pass that over to my superhuman producer wife.

Hanan Kattan: The next project will be based on Shamim’s short story “The Dreaming Spires” and we’re also working on Shamim’s second novel which is “Despite The Falling Snow”.

You mentioned that there have been problems with people downloading the film, can you tell us a little bit about that?

SS: As a very small independent production company we were interested in online marketing. It’s been amazing for us in terms of the fact that particularly for I Can’t Think Straight people have really picked up on it over the internet and supported it and we’ve got 800,000 hits on Metacafe with the trailer. The other side is that since the film has been released in America people have started to put the movie up for download or streaming and that’s been a huge problem. It’s something we’d never do but then I guess we’re probably a generation above the “younger people” and it’s just odd to me because you wouldn’t walk into a shop and just pick something up and walk out but I think that with the internet, it’s become kind of culturally acceptable to do that with movies and books. I’d just like to implore people, please think twice because we worked on these movies for a lot of years and with a lot of stress without getting paid, in the hope of being able to recoup the money from the people who have faith in us. It just makes it harder and harder because ironically people download it and email me to say “When’s your next movie?” and I say “Never! Thanks!”

What’s been the community reaction?

By and large it’s been really positive, especially for people who are struggling with things or living a double life. They’ve emailed me to say, “It’s given us hope that we can do something slightly differently.”

We’ve had a lot of interviews especially with BBC Asian Network and people like that, all about controversy, controversy, controversy. So I say, “Well, what controversy do you mean?” Then they have to get through to the homosexuality without actually saying it. But then again neither of our families have seen this particular film yet because their might be a slight streak of autobiography in there. But they liked The World Unseen.

The “coming out” scene was handled in quite a light-hearted, comedic way and realistically it can be really difficult. Would you ever consider looking at the other side whereby as a Muslim you come out and you’re not accepted, you are ostracized from your family?

Yeah I think I would, I think it’s very important and it’s a big thing for me one way or the other. In fact, the first incarnation of the book was quite serious in dealing with that because it really wasn’t quite like that for us, that was five years of trauma put into three minutes of comedy. It was almost too close and I think that was a way of distancing what we’d both been through. It has been a really long haul and quite traumatic with our families so it’s not something I’d brush over lightly and I think I’d definitely be open to exploring that.

It’s a matter of pushing people’s perceptions of boundaries and understandings and hopefully putting some more role models out there that will say to people, “It’s not an abstract horrible concept.” There are people who feel a certain way and try with something artistic like a book or a movie to involve people in the characters and therefore make it less of a scary concept because there are far bigger things that all of our parents could be worrying about.

Quite a few of the actresses are quite light skinned and I know there’s still a prevalent cultural hierarchy – the whiter is the better – was that a conscious choice?

That wasn’t conscious, I think what happened with the Arab family, in general, see Exhibit A . We wanted actors who looked more Arab than Indian. We had a very short casting process because of time and budgets, and we weren’t able to go to the Middle East to cast so we were casting from Arab actors [in England]. The two Arab actresses I thought could do the role didn’t want to do the love scenes, so we were forced to cast wider and went to Lisa Ray, who we’d just seen in Water. She is half Indian, half Polish but I think that ethnicity was less important to me than being right for the role, so I didn’t get too bogged down in whether the two families matched.

Are you worried about the controversy, because their have been strong reactions to films like I Can’t Think Straight coming out (pun whole-heartedly intended)?

I guess it has crossed my mind. I don’t want to be a target for anyone’s abuse or hatred but I tried then to just keep sight of why I made this film. It wasn’t to cause controversy, it wasn’t to offend people or at least it was to offend everybody equally. It was just to say, “this is a story, this is how life is, this is how life should be” and if that means we have to question our cultures, our communities, our religious ideas a bit more, then all of those things should be able to withstand questioning if they’re worth keeping.

You talk a lot about religion and politics and a lot of other polarizing factors in I Can’t Think Straight, is that a kind of a running metaphor for how perhaps homosexuality polarises people’s opinions?

Yes, I think so, it reflects on a wider scale. But also the function of the politics and religion was part of portraying an Arab family because if you’ve spent any time in the Arab world or with Arabs, you can’t spend five minutes without either of those topics coming up, it’s just like Tala says, “This is small talk in the Middle East”; it’s just part of the fabric of everyday life. So it would have been kind of disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

You call your partner Hanan, your ‘producer wife’, is it difficult to live and work with a loved one?

No, for me it’s the best thing in the world; I love it and I love working with her so we spend an awful lot of time together but I think we both enjoy it. It is wonderful, and I don’t like working away from home. Having said that there are always moments of stress where you find yourself immersed in work and you have to be careful of that, we try and carve out a little bit of time when we’re just wife and wife rather than producer and director.

You mentioned how the film was semi-autobiographical, was that difficult for you throughout the film-making process?

No, I think it was harder during the writing process, that was where all of the emotional fallout was happening. I think by the time we got to filming there were so many other things that I was concerned about. It had become a separate entity from our story in my mind that I just needed to get down as well as I could. At the same time, it was interesting to see moments that felt very true to life, especially when one of the actors had captured something particularly well, like in Layla’s coming out scene, that definitely had an effect on me.

How is the film being received worldwide?

In general the response has been phenomenal. We’ve had really great responses especially from audiences, they really seem to love both films, which is really nice. Because you’re never quite sure when you’re so close to something, and until somebody sees it, you don’t really know how it’s going to go down. But it’s done really well at festivals, we’ve got a lot of prizes, but more than that I think the audience response has been really wonderful.

I Can’t Think Straight will be having a limited theatrical release, in London’s Apollo Lower Regent Street from Friday 3rd April and will be available on DVD shortly after.

Sally McIlhone

Make sure to check out Sally’s review of the movie here. She likes to think….. Or why not take a gander at our celebration of Cinema’s Top 10 Lesbian On-Screen Kisses? YouTube clips aplenty of some sensual sapphic seduction, accompanied by your reliable hilarious OTB commentary….

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