Meet Shamim Sarif, the director revolutionising film for queer women of colour

 (Ki Price)
(Ki Price)

Shamim Sarif is the pioneering director whose films focusing on love stories between women of colour – such as The World Unseen and I Can’t Think Straight – have become cult classics.

It has been seven years since the 53-year-old’s last feature Despite the Falling Snow – though in the meantime she has written novels and directed TV including on hit Netflix show You – which means tomorrow’s premiere of Polarized at BFI Flare, Europe’s largest queer film festival, is something of an event.

Sarif’s feature films, which explore themes of race, religion and queerness, often draws from her own experiences navigating life as a queer woman of colour, raised by Indian parents who fled South Africa during the Sixties to escape apartheid. “I really want all my films to embrace hope and show possibility for change” she says, a sentiment that rings true with her latest project.

Polarized focuses on Lisa and Dalia, two women from very different backgrounds – one evangelical Christian, one Palestinian Muslim – facing individual struggles with their sexual identities while battling with their families and religious beliefs. Eventually they find solace in one another.

“I had the idea for the film when Trump was elected and when Brexit was happening,” the British-Canadian director says. “I felt like there were aspects of those events that were not based on our best instincts as humans. [The film] is about two women in the same town, who are completely separated by religion and race, and somehow find a way past the barriers that have been set up for them culturally.”

 (Shamim Sarif)
(Shamim Sarif)

Set in the Canadian province of Manitoba, Sarif and her producer wife Hanan Kattan stumbled upon the sheltered town of Stonewall while seeking out filming locations. Though they hadn’t initially planned to use a real town, the symbolism of Stonewall – in relation to the history of LGBTQ+ rights – felt like the perfect location for the film.

“My wife and I are Canadian so we naturally wanted to shoot it in Canada, then we chose Manitoba, right in the middle of Canada. There was a cinematic aspect to the location: there are the endless prairie skies and dusty towns. But ultimately it’s a story about losing land, whether it’s a Palestinian family who have lost their land or the local farmers.

“I hadn’t written Stonewall in the script, but there is an actual town in Manitoba called Stonewall! It has such a wonderful symbolic significance for the LGBTQ+ community,” she says, referring to the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969, a watershed moment in the battle for gay rights in the US.

The film shies away from the more tragic storylines that are so prevalent in queer films, particularly those with women at the heart. Why do so many lead to heartbreak, betrayal, death and disappointment? “I don’t know,” Sarif says, “but it drove me crazy.”

She continues, “My wife and I have been together 27 years and during that time there was almost no representation of queer women in film, very little and they definitely all had very unhappy endings. It leaves an imprint on young people watching these movies, it gives a sense of hopelessness, I don’t know why that is apart from maybe latent disapproval that is seeping through from society.”

In her work, Sarif acknowledges the challenges queer people face, but also tells the stories of those who find a way through, and is committed to improving how queer woman – and in particular queer women of colour – are represented on film.

“Things are improving in terms of representation, but I think the stumbling block is often with queer women being featured in stories there’s just not enough women who open films for there to be huge theatrical distribution for these films." she says. “I think perhaps the way The Woman King was shut out at the Oscars is another example of that. I think there’s still a resistance to accepting queer stories and stories about women of colour as being relevant to everybody, which of course they are.”

Sharif and wife Hanan Kattan (Ki Price)
Sharif and wife Hanan Kattan (Ki Price)

She continues, “We all spend a lot of time watching the news and fighting each other on social media… the world has evolved a lot, but then Roe vs Wade was overturned and LGBTQ+ rights are heavily under threat, immigration policies here and everywhere are becoming much more aggressive. I want people to see this film and walk away feeling a sense of empathy for a group of people, whether it’s Palestinians, the queer community, people who they might not know a lot of in real life, but are revealed through stories as being human and not that different.”

That is why festivals such as BFI Flare are so important, she says. It is also an occasion to amplify voices that are frequently overlooked in favour of bigger names: “I think in a post-Covid world, as people are trying to attract in-person audiences once again, there is a tendency to skew towards bigger stars and bigger films, which I think loses some of the discovery that you want to see at film festivals. That makes festivals like BFI Flare all the more important - and important also that it is curating a tremendous quality of work from all over the world.”

This year’s 11-day-long festival boasts a range of films from across the globe, as well as installations, DJ sets, quizzes, and archive footage that pays tribute to those who have been erased from the history books, in particular, Black queer and trans people. But if only one person in the world were to watch Sarif’s film, who would she want that to be? “A politician. I’m not going to say Trump because I don’t think you can change the minds of people like that, but people who are leaning towards the right who need maybe a little bit of empathy and is in a position of power. I would want that person to watch Polarized and see if it helped a little bit to change, or soften, their minds.”

Polarized will be shown at BFI Southbank on March 18, 19 and 26;