Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Shamim Sharif's Bookends: The World Unseen & I Can't Think Straight

Shamim Sharif is - actually, I have no idea how she identifies herself, but she has a female partner and is of Indian decent - an author who a few years ago made a couple of films starring the same women, with similar underlying stories, but in vastly different settings.

The first to be filmed was I Can't Think Straight set in, mainly, modern London. The second was The World Unseen, set in South Africa right as apartheid was getting started. Both of these films are about two women who find each other and fall in love.

I can't really speak to the experience of women of color, Arab Christians, or Muslim women, let alone people living in apartheid-era South Africa. But I pride myself on seeing as many movies about women-who-are-into-women as possible (with the exception of movies that make me want to shoot the filmmaker, such as Kate's Addiction, which I refuse to even link to), as I am a woman-who's-into-women, and there aren't enough movies about us. Certainly not enough happy movies.

I think of I Can't Think Straight and The World Unseen as a pair not only because they share the same leads - Lisa Ray and Sheetal Sheth - but also because they seem like bookends, albeit in an oppositey sort of way. That's to say that in I Can't Think Straight, the two women you want to get together are finally able to overcome society and familiar pressures and have The Sex and to work through their issue and move on from The Sex to The Relationship (it's actually a lot like Imagine Me & You, but with way more issues of race and ethnicity thrown into the mix).

In The World Unseen, it's implied (in a very Fried Green Tomatoes way - there's even a cafe!) that they get to live happily ever after... giving each other longing looks and exchanging kisses in secret.

I don't mean to simplify these movies at all. They're very deep in cultural narrative, and I enjoyed both of them a lot, for different reasons.

The World Unseen was a more polished film. It was leaps and bounds ahead of I Can't Think Straight in production values (there were a lot of weird sound issues with ICTS) and editing. It carried the weight of its Very Important Issues well, touching not only on the forbidden love between two women, but the forbidden love between a black man and a white woman, rape, extra-marital affairs, and, of course, apartheid The title is very telling of what's going on: everything, and it's behind everyone's back.

I imagine that there are more realistic stories about apartheid-era South Africa (the violence seemed relatively minimal, but maybe this is my American bias expecting more), but it was still eye-opening in a lot of ways. And the scenery was beautiful. They actually shot it down in South Africa, and the scenery added a richness and a depth to the story that I'm not sure would have been there otherwise. Long-sweeping scenes of the plain, the wind blowing Lisa ray's hair and dress out behind her as she stared into the sunset... well, it was pretty to look at, and it absolutely drove home the issues of her isolation (and Shteth's characters old truck driving up the dirt road, leaving a trail of dust behind it, shattered that isolation really well).

This isn't to say the actors weren't great. They were. Shteth and Ray have amazing chemistry together, and everyone else was pretty good too, warring between self-repression and the desire to express what they really wanted. My only problem was that I went into the story expecting more of something like ICTS and didn't get it. I got a more subtle, nuanced story that wasn't just about two women meeting and falling in love, but about so much more.

And that's not to take away from ICTS, which was a good movie in its own way. Like I said above, there were some issues with sound, editing, and production value that took me a bit out of it, but it's a movie that I've rewatched a couple of times because it's happy. I want to watch a movie where women meet, fall in love, try to fight it, have The Sex, go through the inevitable Time Apart, but then Get There in the End.

Basically, I dig it when the girl gets the girl.

ICTS isn't completely removed from political and cultural issues, however, despite essentially being a romantic comedy. In this one we've got the wealthy Christian Arab (Ray) from Jordan and the middle-class Muslim raised in London. (Sheth) The latter expresses much more conservative opinions (there's a lot of anti-semitism thrown around, but in a smart way that is countered by characters who are saying what the average Western viewer is probably thinking), but turns out to be the free spirit.

There's a lot going on on the periphery of these two women's lives, but Ray and Sheth make that not really matter. Yeah, there's the coming out process, and it's important. Yeah, there's the cultural view of same-sex relationships both by a secular Arab world and western-raised Muslims. But the chemistry between the two leads is so encompassing that you don't really notice.

And that's why I think these movies are good book ends to each other. The chronologically (set) first ends with a vague sense of unease: these women, their friends, and their world, have fifty years of apartheid to deal with. Even now, same-sex couples aren't exactly looked upon kindly in most places (interracial couples too, depending on where you are). They're together, but the veil of secrecy remains there, blowing in the warm South African winds, over everything they do.

But the end of ICTS is all about embracing love through openness. And that's pretty awesome. It's doubly awesome when you watch it with The Unseen World in mind. These women have taken quite the journey, and where they end up feels like a nice place to be.


  1. hi...
    quite interesting review... I watched both of these indie film. Interesting to watch, lovable character and nice plot story. What I can tell, Shamim doing great for both and I kind of agree that The World Unseen, is much more melodic in term of camera angle and shots.
    After watching these stories, I become fans of both Lisa and Sheetal ^__^ ... Awesome rite!

    chao... ^__^

    p/s: have you watch "Imagine me and you"...a lovely story about love too....

  2. Definitely worth watching several times - TWU - and ICTS as a lighter fare. Love these actresses; as you say their chemistry is fantastic. Their timing is totally smooth and believable. The photography on TWU was impressive.