London, United Kingdom (PressExposure) June 23, 2009 -- CREATING characters imbued with quiet strength, who find the courage to find their voices and speak up to make changes in their lives, has earned critical acclaim for author Shamim Sarif.
Her first novel, The World Unseen, won the Pendleton May First Novel Award, and then the prestigious Betty Trask Award. The Times in London called it "an impressive debut. Sarif's story brings together the descriptive power of the novelist with the screenwriter's mastery of dialogue."
Set in apartheid South Africa in the 1950s and inspired by the true stories of Sarif's grandmother and her Indian/South African heritage, Sarif went on to adapt the novel into a screenplay and, more unusually, direct the film herself. The movie was produced by her life and business partner Hanan Kattan through their company Enlightenment Productions and has recently won the Audience Best Motion Picture Award from the Paris Feminist & Lesbian film festival
In The World Unseen free-spirited Amina has broken all the rules of her own conventional Indian community and the new apartheid-led government by running a cafÃ© with Jacob, her "coloured" business partner. When she meets Miriam, a young traditional wife and mother, their unexpected attraction pushes Miriam to question the rules that bind her. As Amina helps Miriam's sister-in-law to hide from the police, a chain of events is set in motion that changes both women forever.
The World Unseen dÃ©buted at the Toronto International Film Festival and is released in Canada and the US November 2008, and in South Africa in February 2008.
I Can't Think Straight, produced back-to-back with The World Unseen and scheduled for simultaneous theatrical release, is based on Shamim's upcoming third novel, and represented her first time at the helm as director, having begun her studies in directing and film at the Raindance Institute in London. "It was a steep learning curve and an exhilarating experience. Not only technically, but creatively - because you can draw on the individual talents of your actors and heads of department to enhance the ideas you have," says Sarif, who also wrote the lyrics of Tell Me and Ma Fini Fakker, songs used in I Can't Think Straight.
"I love music, I play the piano - enough to please myself, not others," smiles Sarif . "I had always had a desire to write a song one day. That day came more quickly than I had imagined and under more pressured circumstances, when the owners of the Arabic love song I wanted under the first love scene in I Can't Think Straight would not give us clearance for use under a scene between two women."
I Can't Think Straight is the story of spirited Christian Tala and shy Muslim Leyla, who could not be more different from each other but the attraction is immediate. Tala's feisty nature provokes Leyla out of her shell and soon both women reveal their feelings for each other.
"It was a question of needing something, and not wanting to compromise the Arabic side of it so I wrote the lyrics I wanted in English and a friend of ours translated," explains Sarif. "Having established a precedent Hanan suggested I try another song and that was how Tell Me came about."
Wearing the many creative hats that she does, Sarif says she luckily does not feel any tension between the various roles. "They are all extensions of story telling but in very different forms, and I think the key is to let go and to banish the 'novelist' when directing, for example," she reflects. "You can never just translate a story directly from one medium to another. It is a new creative process completely. But I love the change from one to the other - inevitably I learn more about different aspects of the story, theme or characters in the process."
Sarif's stories embrace the timeless themes of love, prejudice, finding your voice and lessons of the heart. It is passionate and provocative stories such as these that embody Enlightenment Production's ethos of developing stories that challenge convention.
"Both movies talk about discovering your voice and then using that voice. Miriam in The World Unseen and Leyla in I Can't Think Straight are quiet characters, but when faced with an opportunity to change their lives, they take it," explains Sarif.
"Small changes can have a huge impact on the course of a life, and I love exploring that - daring to challenge rules and traditions that people generally do not question, that are accepted just because they have existed for a long time.
"And while the stories are specific in time and place, those themes, of being true to yourself, as very universal and I think that's what readers and viewers respond to."
Sarif find this to be relevant to herself as well. Being honest about herself and having integrity have been part of her personal choices, she says. "In coming to terms with being gay in a culture that didn't readily accept that - and professionally. Setting up Enlightenment, working to produce our own independent films, has been an unusual choice - certainly not a safe one. But it was the way we always wanted to live."
Sarif's second novel, Despite the Falling Snow, received overwhelmingly excellent reviews and she has adapted this moving tale set in cold war Russia and present day United States into a screenplay. The picture will be helmed by Sarif and produced by Hanan Kattan next winter, showing that there is no stopping this winning combination.
"I have lots of stories still to tell, but I can't tell them without Hanan's input! We work closely creatively, as well as on production and finance," says Sarif. "I think the stories and themes will continue to evolve as we evolve and our view of the world and our interaction with it changes and brings us different experiences."
"I'm drawn to stories where people uncover their own power and start to change things around them. I think integrity and courage are rare and charismatic qualities and I like to be around them."