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Meet Shamim Sarif, Lesbian Filmmaker Who Is Changing the World One Film at a Time

In a world trying to aim for equality, making a difference in the LGBTQ cause can come in myriad ways.

Runa Mukherjee Parikh |

Updated:November 1, 2016, 11:03 AM IST
Meet Shamim Sarif, Lesbian Filmmaker Who Is Changing the World One Film at a Time
Photo via Twitter/ShamimSarif.

In a world trying to aim for equality, making a difference in the LGBTQ cause can come in myriad ways. Lesbian novelist and filmmaker Shamim Sarif has chosen the pen and the camera to make these voices heard.

Sarif, a British-Indian Muslim, dons a lot of hats with ease. She started with writing prose, short stories, moved to writing books (The World Unseen, I Cant Think Straight and Despite the Falling Snow) and finally, adapted them into three power packed films, becoming a director in the process. The most interesting part? All her stories have lesbian leads, telling stories the way they see the world.

But Sarif had never set out to make ‘women’s films’ or ‘lesbian films’. “Personally I don’t go to the movies and say ‘that was a great heterosexual story’ and so I didn’t expect the reverse to happen - but in fact our films did become quite niched in terms of audience. What’s been amazing about that is the incredible, ongoing feedback and support - an outpouring that made it clear to us that there was a huge desire for stories like this to be told. That was very empowering and exciting,” says the 47 year old.

As Sarif readies to speak at the Hampstead Arts Festival in November, she shares how she initially thought being a woman or a lesbian wont matter while trying to tell important stories. Turns out, it mattered greatly. “There is an inherent lack of female perspective in storytelling and in the film industry. When fewer than 5% of directors are women, that’s a huge imbalance that must be systemic. It is also much harder to raise finance for movies with female leads, and even harder when they are lesbian leads. So, to me, the Hampstead Arts Festival provides a valuable forum to discuss these questions and suggest a way forward.”

Coming out is hard even in the western world

Even as an Indian origin Muslim woman living in the UK, her life wasn’t exactly easy. “I was aware of my preferences from my early teens but I didn’t come out until I met Hanan. I was quite introverted and didn’t go out much so it wasn’t as if I felt I needed to make an issue of it with my family. But when I met Hanan and knew that this was the person I wanted to be with, I came out within a couple of weeks. I didn’t then see the point of hiding it and that felt wrong. It was definitely easier to be living in the UK and to have something of a more western sensibility but it was still 20 years ago and a big source of shame for my mother in particular,” the writer, whose book I Cant Think Straight is semi-autobiographical, shares.

But Sarif's work has helped women tremendously. Since making I Can’t Think Straight and The World Unseen, she has met the most amazing women from India and other places and heard their stories about being inspired to be true to themselves. "It’s the path I would always recommend because life is so precious, it doesn’t feel right to live it on someone else’s terms. However, some of the women I met have had immense challenges to their safety and livelihood, so I would never push anyone to come out."

Urmi Dutta Roy, one of the organizers of the festival whose theme this year is 'overcoming challenges', says, "Sarif is married to film producer Hanan Katan, a Jordanian born Palestinian and they are parents to two young boys. Together, they tick every minority box possible and their whole set up challenges the status quo but proves that love conquers all in the end."

For all those who are doing their bit in changing the world, Sarif feels one must constantly try to challenge the reality and be open as human beings. And she does it through her stories. "Some cultures, in India and elsewhere, live within a very prescribed set of rules and expectations and these need to be challenged. The World Unseen re-imagined my grandmother’s life if she had been able to glimpse the possibility of questioning her husband, or her family, or the rules of apartheid. Questioning is key to growth and in my stories, it is often falling in love that’s the catalyst for characters to become more open to another perspective and then change their own lives."

Well, here's hoping to love breaking more shackles then.

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| Edited by: Shomini Sen
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