Once upon a time, a successful lesbian novelist — Shamim
Sarif — decided that she was going to make films.
She started by writing
scripts, and when that proved depressingly
unsatisfactory, she adapted her novels into screenplays, learned the art of
directing, and convinced her partner Hanan Kattan to produce her films.
A couple of years and two full-length features later, the couple
is currently knee-deep in a sea of anticipation and praise, with the recent
theatrical releases of I Can’t Think
Straight and The World Unseen. AfterEllen.com
had a unique opportunity to speak with both the filmmakers and lead actress
Sheetal Sheth about the journey from page to screen, and back again.
Actress Sheetal Sheth, director Shamim Sarif, producer Hanan Kattan
Surely, many lesbian filmmakers have “done more with less”
before, but none on the scale and scope of Sarif and Kattan. They brought a
“DIY” ethos to a higher level.
Their first film was a trial by fire for a new director.
First, Sarif had to learn how to direct, which involves management of personalities,
time and resources — a very different process from the introspective task of
“I think the big thing, when you’re writing a novel
especially, is that you really are in charge of your own creative world and
universe, and of course it’s a very solitary process,” said Sarif. “It was
interesting to me how that transition to directing would be. I loved it, as it
happens. But there is partly an element of management about it, because you’re
in charge of a staff of 80 or 100 people.”
“But what I really did love about it,” she continued, “was
the collaboration — between the different heads of departments, and especially
with the actors; because these are all people who are better at their jobs than
you could ever be. If you’re lucky, they’re bringing in a creative aspect to it
that is actually raising the game for you.”
Kattan, for her part, had to learn the ins and outs of
producing a feature film — and the I
Can’t Think Straight production was a particularly tough production.
But Sarif had confidence in her partner. “I knew she had the
passion and the drive in the business sense, and I was pretty sure she could
pick up learning about a new industry too. And, well, you can see the result –
two films in two years. It’s great for me.”
The next step was securing I Can’t Think Straight’s two leads to play the parts of Tala — a
headstrong Palestinian woman, and Leyla, a shy but talented writer who
struggles with her sexuality.
They two women and fall in love amidst a storm of
traditional familial and cultural expectations and an uncomfortable political
backdrop — not an easy task for performers of any cultural or ethnic
In what was to become the first of many roadblocks, Sarif and
Kattan had a hard time finding performers of the right ethnicity.
Said Kattan: “We had a lot of problems with other Arab and
Indian actors who just refused to do these scenes, because a kiss, let alone a
love scene, between them [was too risqué].”
The filmmakers even found it difficult to get permission to
use Arab inspired music in the love scene because of the subject matter. True
to form, Sarif ended up writing the music — but there was still the matter of
finding two strong performers who had no problem playing lesbians. Said Sarif
“I had one actress who offered to do a little light kissing in a skin colored
bodysuit” she laughed, “but nothing muck kinkier than [that]!”
Kattan and Sharif found their perfect matches in Lisa Ray, a
former Bollywood star and model, and Sheetal Sheth, an Indian-American actress
best known for her role in Looking for
Comedy in the Muslim World.
would go on to star together again in The World
Securing Sheth was actually one of the last pieces to fall
into place: “The funny thing is, I didn’t have a chance to read [the script]
because I was in the middle of other stuff,” said Sheth. “I finally sat down to
read it and I was so taken by it immediately.”
Sheth as “Leyla”
“I couldn’t find somebody that I thought would gel for the
part of Leyla in the UK.”
Said Sarif, “But I had a couple of good phone calls with Sheetal and she flew
over for an audition — Hanan said ‘pack for two days, but be prepared to stay
for two months!’
Kattan chimed in: “And she did!”