Shamim Sarif, 47, is an award-winning British novelist, screenwriter, and feature film director. The tagline for her first film said it all – ie ‘Just another British, Indian, Muslim, Arab, Christian, lesbian romantic comedy’. She occupies the unusual position of having written three novels, then their screenplays, then directed the films! What a woman. Her latest feature as writer/director is Despite the Falling Snow, which released theatrically in the UK in April 2016.
You seem to have carved a singular place for yourself as a novelist, screenwriter and a film director often of these self-penned novels? How did that happen?
I really just started doing what I loved and what felt natural to me – storytelling. And that evolved into different media. What made it possible to make the leap from novelist to director was my partner Hanan’s involvement. When we started our own production company, it was specifically to develop our own, female-led stories.
How does it feel to be the only promoter of gay, Muslim and Christian culture?
I don’t feel I promote any particular agenda other than being a good human being, or trying to be. I was raised Muslim but do not practice any religion. My first films, I Can’t Think Straight and The World Unseen, did reach an incredibly receptive audience in the Muslim world, though. I think there is a great thirst for role models especially in the form of lesbian characters. I was surprised by the outpouring of support and really happy to be part of it.
Have you always been rebellious?
My sister would laugh at that question. I was always the quiet one, never causing any trouble, going out, or doing anything challenging to my parents. I think my personality (introverted writer!) created that. But when I met Hanan there was no doubt in my mind that I would follow the path that felt right. It didn’t feel like a rebellion for the sake of it – more an acceptance of what was right in the face of everyone telling me it was wrong.
We have read that it was not easy for your Indian/Muslim/Palestinian families when you married producer Hanan Kattan? Have things settled down now?
It was very difficult. Twenty years ago even more taboos existed. But yes, things settled down. The great realization we had was that the more we focused on the drama and stress, the worse it got. So we decided consciously to focus on building our own family and let others be part of it if they wanted to.
Has age helped with this evolution?
Age helps with everything except my running speed and eyesight! I think breaking away mentally from your family is a huge ask and an accelerated maturity in a way. I’m definitely less and less concerned with how people perceive me as I get older.
How has being in your mid-40s influenced your film-making/writing?
I hope experience improves everything – I feel it does. Also when you have lived through certain experiences like marriage and children, it gives you an insight that you can’t quite have when you are much younger.
I Can’t Think Straight seemed to be autobiographical but what about your recent film, Despite The Falling Snow?
Despite the Falling Snow is not based on any family history but it continues with themes that have always formed part of my work. The way two people from very different points of view can open up the world to each other. How love can be transformative to our way of thinking. And how politics creates pressures that test our characters to the limits.
It seems to be a good idea, especially with the long haul that is film-making, to be working with your wife? Is it?
Yes, it’s an excellent idea. I think it’s hard for partners to be separated for that long and working intensely on something together is fantastic (maybe more for me than Hanan, who has a harder job in my opinion!) We also take our children, Ethan (17) and Luca (13) with us when we film, so we stay together as a family as much as possible. They’ve appeared in every film we’ve made.
Why the Cold War for this film and the 2004 novel that it’s based on?
It’s always been fascinating to me, and I don’t think we see the Cold War much from a female perspective, and I loved discovering it through Katya’s eyes.
Do you have any futuristic visions for old people’s homes/care? What would you like to happen to you?
I haven’t thought about it much but the older I get the more I feel that family and friends – a human connection – is so important. And that’s quite something for me, because I am often happy in my own world as a writer. I would love for us to be always be near our boys and to maintain a lot of our great friendships.
Shamim Sarif will be in conversation with Helen O’Hara at the Hampstead Arts Festival on 13th November. You can buy tickets here.