60 seconds with ... Shamin Sarif

Shamim Sarif is an award-winning British novelist, screenwriter, filmmaker and TEDx speaker. As an openly lesbian woman of ethnic minority origin, she knows a thing or two about overcoming challenges. She will be speaking at HAF 2016.

Who has been the most influential person in your career and why?
Undoubtedly my wife Hanan. On a practical level she turned film producer to make it possible for me to direct and make films with creative integrity. But more than that, her belief in my abilities and the stories I wanted to tell, made me believe in myself.

Of all the books you have written, which is your favourite and why?
That’s a hard one, but I would say The World Unseen. It was my first novel, a kind of reimagining of my grandmother’s life amongst the patriarchal Indian community of South Africa during 1950s apartheid. There was a quiet detail to it that I enjoyed in the writing of it. It also won a couple of prizes which was a wonderful start!

How autobiographical are your stories?
I Can’t Think Straight is the most obviously biographical but even there, I focused on treating an emotionally difficult time with humour. Despite the Falling Snow is about a female spy in Cold War Moscow who falls in love with the wrong man – so not much clear connection there. But usually the themes and some elements of characters come from aspects of me and then evolve into their own beings.

What is the greatest challenge you have had to overcome in your life thus far?
I have been so blessed that I can honestly say the most challenging thing was coming out and dealing with considerable drama from our families. Twenty years ago there was still quite a stigma to it, and Hanan and I both came from fairly conservative cultural backgrounds. When we decided to have our (beautiful) children, we decided to focus on our own, new family and not buying into everyone else’s drama. It was a great lesson in personal happiness.

How important is the role of films in educating and challenging audiences to think differently?
I believe very deeply that stories have the power to make us look at the world differently because they speak to us emotionally.  Film seems particularly powerful in touching our feelings - perhaps because they are so visual. Every week I hear from someone who has made a change in their lives because of one of our films – so I have come to believe in the power of stories to help us navigate our choices in life.

In your opinion how are 'women in film' portrayed in Hollywood versus Bollywood?
I am not best qualified to answer that as I am not an authority on either. But I do think some exciting work focused on women is coming from both areas now – maybe not yet the mainstream, but still great to see.

We've read you have a legendary dining table which has been the centre of many great discussions. Who would your dream dinner party guests be and what would you feed them?
Anyone who is passionate and tenacious at what they do. I feel like just amongst our amazing friends we have a dream dinner party every couple of months. But it would be fun to have writers like Keats and Murakami as well as great filmmakers from Wong Kar Wai to Orson Welles. I would also invite Meryl Streep – she is a great talent but also seems to have an amazing sense of humour. As for the menu – since my wife and I are about to open a new restaurant in Soho, I think some delicious Palestinian-inspired home cooking would be unusual but irresistible!

Which actor would you like to play you in the story of your life?
I’d leave that to the director (which wouldn’t be me). ‘I Can’t Think Straight’ captured a tiny piece of my life already and for that I cast US actress Sheetal Sheth who might be a tad younger and thinner than me, but hey, it’s the movies!

Tell us one fun fact about yourself which people may find surprising?
I can play the piano and bake great cakes, but not at the same time.

What's next for Shamim Sarif in 2017?
Like Chairman Mao, Hanan has a 5 year plan and on that, I will be publishing my new book, The Artemis Protocol – an all female action story. And shooting the movie…