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Mogul in the making: with two new films coming out in November, writer-director Shamim Serif is one lesbian filmmaker who is enjoying bang-up success.

Prize-winning novelist turned director Shamim Sarif, a Briton of Indian and South African ethnicity, wrote and directed two films about to make their U.S. theatrical debuts: I Can't Think Straight, a romantic comedy about the clashing of Palestinian and Indian cultures in the U.K.; and The World Unseen, a dramatic love story between two Indian women in South Africa under apartheid in the 1950s. Based on Sarif's acclaimed first novel of the same name, The World Unseen draws on her family history, which goes back three generations in South Africa.

Sarif became convinced she should adapt her own stories for the screen after a film option on one of her short stories fell through. She took some directing classes and then, with her life partner, Hanan Kattan, formed Enlightenment Films. Their aim is to produce more low- to medium-budget features, including another script by Sarif based on her novel Despite the Falling Snow.

The international casts for both of Sarif's films are headed by Toronto-born Mumbai and London resident Lisa Ray (Water) and Indian-American Sheetal Sheth (Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World). The World Unseen opens November 7, and I Can't Think Straight begins showing two weeks later; both will premiere in New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto.

I Can't Think Straight was actually your first film, but you're releasing The World Unseen first. Yes, the financing for I Can't Think Straight was nightmarish. With The World Unseen we went with private equity: a couple of women who were friends of ours--strong, savvy businesswomen and investors.

So The World Unseen is completely female-funded? Almost 100%, yes. We got perhaps 4% or 5% from the South African government.

Both films contain risky subject matter for these traditional cultures. I was most nervous about the Indian response--but we've had a surprisingly good reaction to The World Unseen from the Muslim South African community.

I'd like it to find a mainstream audience, the way you and I can go and see Doctor Zhivago and understand that passion. So our approach in marketing it was not to designate it as a "lesbian film." And perhaps that's why we didn't find that opposition. At heart, the movie is about finding your voice. Miriam [a main character in The World Unseen] has an emotional awakening, and the woman who is a catalyst for that is gay.

I Can't Think Straight, on the other hand, features a lot more sex. Was it hard to find actresses willing to do these passionate love scenes? Well, our two protagonists in I Can't Think Straight are Arab-Palestinian and British-Indian, so we wanted to cast from those groups. I was frankly shocked at how difficult it was to find actresses who would do it. One told us she was willing to do some light kissing in a skin-colored bodysuit, which sounded a lot kinkier than what I had in mind.

Each film centers around different ethnic groups or cultures from each other, yet you cast the same actresses for both. Lisa Ray has the sort of features that could belong to many ethnicities--her father's Bengali, and her mother's Polish. She has a very international face.

And what's next for you? I'm finishing the novel version of I Can't Think Straight--I had a first draft only when I began writing the screenplay. I see it as an entity in its own right. Some scenes are coming out very different!

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Author:Marler, Regina
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 4, 2008
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