The Two of Us
When you spend as much time with someone as Shamim Sarif and Hanan Kattan do, you better be in love, real love. These two work, play, live, love and raise two boys together. Sarif writes award-winning novels and writes and directs such films as I Can’t Think Straight , The World Unseen and The House Tomorrow and Kattan produces those films. Kattan also co-directed The House Tomorrow, a documentary about Western Asian women making a difference. The two also run the Sarif-Kattan Foundation, an organization focusing on women’s and children’s issues and their film company, Enlightenment Productions. Then there is the Movies, Marriage and Mayhem, a project chronicling their lives together.
Before they were together, Safif hailed from South Africa and Kattan from Jordan. They now live together in London with their two sons.
In this exclusive interview LN caught up with the married couple while they were in Germany for the DLD Women conference and found out why they manage their affairs of the heart, motherhood, film and business so well.
Lesbian News: How did you two meet?
Shamin Sarif: Just like in our film I Can’t Think Straight, I was dating Hanan’s best friend! He was what my parents considered a “suitable boy” and a really lovely guy but there were more sparks between Hanan and I. He took me to meet Hanan one evening before we went out for dinner and told me he was sure I would love her. I don’t think he meant it like that but I did.
Hanan Katan: Shamim was magnetic and nothing was happening between her and my best friend, who was at the time looking to settle down with a suitable girl. Shamim and I were more suited to each other.
LN: What was your first impression of the other and was it accurate?
SS: I met Hanan while sipping tea in her parents’ rather formal Mayfair apartment and she hadn’t arrived yet. I was sure she would be designer-labeled and styled to within an inch of her life. When she showed up in loafers, a Loony Tunes denim shirt and crazy curly hair, I was happily surprised. She was funny and very, very intelligent. Still, I thought she was super cool and it never crossed my mind she might one day be interested in me.
HK: My friend at the time wanted me to check out Shamim for him. I was happily surprised as I expected a more traditional person to show up but Shamim’s intelligence and humor — despite her being shy — captured my interest straight away.
LN: What was your childhood like?
SS: It was great. I grew up in a beautiful home after my dad started to do well in his business. I was generally happy at school and at home, perhaps especially because I was very shy and never rocked the boat. It was only in my 20s that I started causing trouble by coming out and then it wasn’t so happy at all. I was also brought up to be quite religious and that’s a major thing that I have deliberately dropped.
HK: Middle Eastern dramas and wars but in general a good childhood. I was not good with rules as most of them did not make any sense to me.
SS: Quiet, relatively introverted, passionate about many things, including books and movies. My worst silent rebellions were things like staying up all night listening to the radio commentary when England played cricket in Australia.
HK: Independent, strong willed and a leader.
LN: How did you first come out?
SS: I wish I could say “very carefully” but it was actually quite a quick and definite decision for me, just a week or so after Hanan and I were together. Once I knew this was it for me, it made no sense in my mind to keep it to myself or to try and lie about it. Part of me was really hopeful that my mother would actually be happy for me, which was a delusion that I was soon cured of.
HK: First to a few friends and some family members and then to my parents — the hardest of all coming out.
LN: What were your favorite movies growing up?
SS: I had a broad mix of movie favorites. I loved old movies like His Girl Friday for the snappy dialogue. I liked some of the better Hollywood films, especially comedies and love stories but I also explored foreign films. The Three Colours series is one I associate with my teenage years, and many fabulous French films. When we were really young, my sister and I would do daft things like watch every Elvis film that they put on in the summer holidays, or watch The Sound of Music 60 times. Things you look back on and wonder how you ever had time to do them.
HK: Many, but mainly independent art-house films.
LN: How did you feel about the representation of lesbians in films while you were growing up?
SS: I loved seeing any representation I could find but it didn’t seem to be much. Two movies stand out for me in my teenage years. One was Entre Nous by Diane Kurys and I think there was just one kiss between the women at the end but the growing relationship enthralled me. And Desert Hearts by Donna Deitch was a wonderful revelation and such an evocative sense of time and place. How she used 1950s music in the film, the rawness of the love scene — all of it stayed with me long after I’d switched off the little black and white TV that I had all to myself in my bedroom.
HK: I was not exposed to any films.
LN: How did watching so many films about happy heterosexual women finding true love make you feel?
SS: Great! Everyone should find true love. I just didn’t understand why they didn’t prefer their best friends in the movie.
HK: Love is love and happy endings are a good thing when they are meaningful.
LN: When did you decide to be a filmmaker? What jobs did you have before going into film? What was the worst one?
SS: I worked for my dad in finance and life insurance for eight years. I only wanted to write, but had to have a proper job. Seriously, all day looking at spreadsheets sent me running home at night to write and I wrote many short stories, a screenplay and then my first novel, The World Unseen, during that time.
LN: Do you have any desires to work in Hollywood?
SS: My very first screenplay ever was a very delicate story of unrequited love set in 1950s Oxford. I always wanted to make fabulous, big screen films, so I sent it off to Hollywood through whoever I remotely knew (and it was practically no-one). It got optioned by a production company there and one day they called me to say they’d raised $15 million to make the movie. I was ecstatic. I was practicing my Oscar speech. But there was one catch. They needed two sex scenes and a nude scene — in a story of unrequited love. It was a hard decision but it gave me the impetus to persuade Hanan to start Enlightenment Productions so we could preserve the creative integrity of our stories. So, I only desire Hollywood when we are on a cold set and I think a big trailer might be handy or a bigger budget for more shooting days. But I don’t want the creative interference and focus groups deciding the ending, so I think the more independent route works for me for now.
LN: You said you want to challenge people with your films, please elaborate.
SS: I do love movies that make you come out thinking a little differently. Certainly movies that make the characters go through a process where their world view changes somehow. Our natural state is to feel our vision of life is the one that is right, and it is a healthy thing to challenge that regularly. Films have an advantage because great movies evoke emotion. And when we are aware and open emotionally, we are most able to change and to imagine things differently — much more so than faced with just logic.
LN: How did the making of The House of Tomorrow change you?
SS: It made me learn how to use my camera better! We had no crew except for Hanan and our two children, so it was a lean. But seriously, it made me more aware that everyone can change their own realities just through the stories they tell themselves. In The House of Tomorrow, women just like us live in a conflict zone but have found ways to focus on building a future. Not easy to do.
LN: Two of your films deal with Western Asian issues. What are your thoughts on the Arab-Israel conflict? How do you think it will end?
SS: I am hopeful. I think politicians may not manage to end this conflict but my hope is that a critical mass of enough empowered and forward-thinking people in the populations of each side will. The odds against that feel huge when you think of the deep wounds and the feeling that many Palestinians have that they should not have to make any concessions to Israel, together with the fact that many Israelis are carrying on with their everyday lives able to ignore the situation altogether. But still, if you can imagine it, it can happen.
HK: It opened up a new dialogue and a new journey.
LN: When it comes to your films, how do Arab audiences differ from Israeli audiences?
SS: I run the risk of generalizing, so let me say that I have had some super responses from individual Arabs. As a whole, though, the subject matter of two women in love has meant zero engagement from Arab countries or film festivals; whereas we’ve played the movies in Tel Aviv twice.
LN: What was your wedding like?
HK: A wonderful day of bliss with our boys & close friends and major chaos as we were in the middle of pre-production on I Can’t Think Straight when I decided we should get married.
LN: Was it a surprise to anyone you two were getting married?
SS: It was a surprise to me, because we were in pre-production for I Can’t Think Straight and I did not believe Hanan was serious when she suggested that we take this particular moment to get married but I got over it. Overall, it wasn’t a surprise. We had both our beautiful boys, Ethan and Luca, by that point so we were a family to everyone who knows us but it just seemed a lovely way to get our closest friends and a few family members together to celebrate the fact, after civil partnerships became legal in the UK.
LN: How do you two work as team professionally and personally?
SS: It’s a dream for me, having a passionate, dedicated producer who puts the story and my vision first. Having said that, I complain regularly about Hanan’s extreme work ethic and how it would be lovely to sleep with just my wife and not the producer every now and then. But I love it. We are very different and have such different strengths in the workplace that we complement each other. I do drive Hanan a little mad when I am in writer mode and forgetting my keys, appointments and everything else.
LN: Is there any area where you two do not agree on and how do you overcome it as a couple working, living and loving together?
SS: Total respect for each other is a big asset. Generally I’ll take the final creative call and Hanan would make the final decision on a production issue but I am rarely happy if we are totally in contradiction because I trust her instincts and vision very much. Often it means I am missing something, so I try to look at every side before we agree to differ.
HK: I am producing to support Shamim so all creative decisions are hers and I give her my input. On other subjects, we always discuss them and we usually have the same vision and values. I drive her up the wall with my massive to do lists!
LN: How has motherhood changed you as an artist?
SS: I am definitely less floaty. I used to get totally lost in writing but when you have children, there is an instinct that you need to be there for them, though I am lucky to have Hanan ever vigilant. And I am finding out I am nowhere near as wise as I thought I was before I had children.
LN: Which one of you is the disciplinarian with your boys?
SS: We take turns. It keeps them on their toes. And I think perhaps different things trigger us differently.
HK: Our boys, like most children, were natural born negotiators and often times they know how to get their way. Shamim gives in before me usually but we both try to have clear things that are acceptable or not acceptable to us as I am sure most mothers go through. But they are the loves of our life and they complete our family.
LN: How has Movies, Marriage and Mayhem affected your careers?
SS: It just meant that I couldn’t leave the house without Hanan training a camera on me. I was not an entirely happy person at the prospect.
HK: Shamim is very private even though she is very relaxed on stage but there are many aspects of our lives that she keeps private.
LN: What is the most touching thing somebody ever said about your films?
SS: Many people have told us that the movies literally changed their lives. I found that amazing but having characters that learn to think differently actually inspired people to make similar decisions. We’ve had women tell us about leaving relationships that were difficult or unhappy, women who have decided to find financial empowerment.
HK: The daily emails from fans who were moved and touched by our films is amazing. One fan, who wants to remain anonymous, was the key contributor to TEDxHolyLand as she wanted to support us and was so taken by the films and our courage to be out, despite our Eastern backgrounds, that she felt compelled to support our project at the time.
LN: What is the cruelest thing somebody ever said about one of your films?
SS: A NY Times journalist mentioned quivering lips but not in a good way. It made me smile (briefly), but clearly she missed the point.
HK: Homophobic and personal comments were upsetting at the time but we try to look forward and not to dwell on negative comments. In general we have had a lot more positive input and comments and so far on You Tube alone, the number of hits from our videos and from fan videos is at 60 million hits, which is phenomenal.
LN: What can you tell us about your upcoming project(s)?
SS: Despite the Falling Snow is based on my second novel. In 1950s Moscow, communist Katya secretly spies for the Americans in the Cold War arms race. When she lands her biggest assignment, stealing secrets from rising government star Alexander, the last thing she expects is to fall in love with him. Reconciling her passion for him with her beliefs about communism means making the greatest sacrifice of her life — a sacrifice that Alexander only uncovers forty years later. It has a lesbian love story in the present day part of the story and it is quite epic. We are working on financing now and hoping to shoot in January 2013.
LN: What advice would you give our readers who want to go into filmmaking as a career?
SS: Do it for pure passion for storytelling and because you feel film is the best way for you to say what you want to say. It is a hard environment and highly competitive, so you need to know what you want and why you want it.
HK: Know why you are doing it and do it for the right reasons.
SS: Writing novels, writing blogs, traveling, speaking at conferences, learning about the latest in digital marketing, editing my wife’s book, playing with the boys, cooking, eating and wondering if I will ever get time with a book and a glass of wine. Plus giving back through our foundation: the Sarif-Kattan Foundation.
HK: Creating businesses, managing & growing businesses; quality time with my boys and Shamim, attending amazing conferences, spending time with our dear friends, going to the movies, the theater, traveling and writing. And focusing on key charities that we sponsor through our Sarif-Kattan Foundation.
LN: What social causes are dearest to you?
SS: Many causes but particularly those related to women and children, because the vulnerability of these two groups should make them more cared for but instead they are often taken advantage of the most.
HK: Women and children’s charities focused on empowering both. The Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund is one we are particularly keen on supporting.
LN: Please tell us about the Sarif-Kattan Foundation.
SS: My view was that we should wait till we were older, more established, with bigger businesses under our belts and then focus on a foundation. Hanan’s view is always “Why wait?” And I think she was right. It is a shame to wait to give back and even if we are not yet contributing huge cash sums to the foundation, we can contribute in many ways such as screenings and talks. We’ve done a lot of work for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, for instance, and TEDxHolyLand, the conference that inspired The House of Tomorrow, was all funded through the foundation.
HK: There is never a better time than now. It is important to make a contribution, regardless of the size and the method. It is also important to set an example for our boys and to encourage them to think of contributing and giving back. It is very important for human being to do whatever they can to help others and we like to do so through education and empowering as much as we can.
LN: What is the best film you have seen this year and why?
SS: Two standouts for me so far are Polisse, a French film focused on the Child Protection Unit in Paris. Totally harrowing and so real and human in a way that French cinema manages so often. I also enjoyed The Hunger Games. That idea of keeping your dignity in a world that is doing all it can to entice you to lose it. That theme cuts through both movies.
LN: Have you been following the recent narrative of LGBT rights in the USA? If so, what do you think?
SS: It is appalling that one of the most apparently liberal and open societies on earth still has debates like this.
HK: I find it so strange that the US was the place where people gravitated to for freedom of rights and expression and yet it is a very conservative place when it comes to gay rights and the rights of people in love to be able to do so legally and without prejudice. I have a hard time understanding the selective freedom of rights.
LN: Hanan, please tell us about your holistic premium mass-market products.
HK: Minus a few years working for my dad, I have always worked for myself and I loved creating brands. I was the first to come up with a brand based on Chinese Herbal therapy but positioned it for the premium mass market using Aromatherapy and Chinese Herbs. I then created other brands in that category. Shamim helped me every step of the way.
LN: Shamim, you write novels and screenplays. Why do you think you write so much?
SS: Because I can’t paint. Seriously, I’ve always loved both forms, and I am lucky to move between them. I see both very visually, but there is a delicious submersion in the novel form that is so different to the visceral, “paint the picture” format of the screenplay.
LN: Please name a book or two which had a profound effect on you?
SS: J.D. Salinger’s short story For Esme with Love and Squalor really touched me when I was younger. He has that ability to articulate youthful uncertainty and sorrow. Henry James The Portrait of a Lady and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles are two classics that I love.
HK: Shamim’s novels! Seriously I just love Shamim’s work and I fall more and more in love with her when I read her novels, or lyrics for the songs she wrote for I Can’t Think Straight.
LN: What did I forget to ask you?
SS: Nothing, this was the most comprehensive interview I’ve ever seen.
HK: It is wonderful to live with the love of my life, who makes me laugh a lot and who is fun and wonderful to be with. And it is a blessing that we have our boys and our family and that we are very close.