Having penned a great number of novels and created a small collection of films since the turn of the new millennium, Shamim Sharif may just be one of the most hardworking directors working in contemporary British cinema. Soon to premiere her fifth feature film, Polarized, at BFI Flare, Sharif’s work flickers with poetic subtleties, with each one exploring how personal identity and romantic relationships entangle in modern life.
Releasing the independent dramas The World Unseen and I Can’t Think Straight in 2007 and 2008 respectively, Sharif made a significant career leap in 2016, adapting her own novel Despite the Falling Snow to a feature film starring Rebecca Ferguson, Charles Dance and Sam Reid. Ever since, Sharif’s profile has grown year after year, most recently taking on an episode of the celebrated twisted drama You for Netflix.
Polarized is her latest offering to cinema, with the film telling a queer love story set in a small Canadian town sitting across the bible belt where conversations about immigration, sexuality and other progressive ideals are rife. Pushing the boundaries of representation for queer women of colour, the film is a fascinating exploration of the immigrant experience that is supported by some stellar direction and a compelling soundtrack that blends Arabic rap and American country.
Screening at the 37th edition of BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival, one of the world’s longest-standing queer film events, the festival takes place at the BFI Southbank, with a screening of Polarized being shown as part of ‘Best of the Fest’ on Sunday, March 26th.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Sharif and discuss the ins and outs of Polarized, as well as her work on Netflix’s You and her thoughts on modern LGBTQIA+ cinema.
An interview with Shamim Sarif:
Far Out: In your own words, could you explain what Polarized is about and what you were intending to explore with the film?
Sharif: “So Polarized is a story about two young women who are, in this day and age, separated by race and religion and economics. In a small town in the Canadian Prairies, Lisa goes to work at a vertical farm, which is the new kind of science that’s pushed traditional farms like her own family’s farm out of business. Lisa’s boss at that farm, Dalia, is part of the successful Muslim Palestinian family who owns the computerised farm. So there are resentments, and there’s distrust on both sides, but despite that, I wanted to tell a story that could get us past those superficial differences that politicians are very happy to tell us should be keeping us apart”.
What was the writing process like, was it inspired by a particular event?
“It was inspired by Trump being elected and by Brexit happening in quick succession because it felt like a real sucker punch. I think, more than that, I’ve noticed a lot that the rhetoric around that was kind of inflammatory. It was often anti-immigrant, it was often emphasising things that people would have been ashamed to say previous to that, but certain politicians were making it OK to say.
“It took me back in time to when I was coming out, 27 years ago now, the world was very different. Also, I think that that immigrant experience was very present for me and my partner Hanan because she’s from a Palestinian Christian family, and I’m from a South Asian Muslim family whose family had to escape apartheid South Africa. So the whole story of immigration, of immigrants coming to a new country, making something of themselves and maybe not being as welcome as they could be, was something that was very real to me. I felt like there were a lot of ways into that story”.
What was it about Canada in particular that attracted you to the location?
“I really loved the idea of having it in a small prairie town, and when I went over there, I was working in Manitoba shooting a TV show there, and I thought this really would be amazing, cinematically, to set this movie here. It’s so small that to stay to your side of the town is really making a big statement, but at the same time, you’ve got these beautiful vistas that can really fill up a widescreen. It felt very mythical.
“It’s like that mythical American landscape that you see in movies like Days of Heaven or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but here’s a world where streams are dying in effect with the local farming community. Juxtaposing combines going through the fields with the fact that actually, the farmers are struggling, I thought was an interesting comparison”.
How important was that rural setting for you? Do you think your story could have worked if the film was set in New York, for example?
“I think the cultural differences seem more heightened in a small town. I really do. I think there’s a multiculturalism to somewhere like New York, I don’t think the story would have the same resonance. But, you know, I think that the population outside cities is having a huge impact on our policies and politicians; they need to win those votes. So if people in smaller towns are more wary of immigrants or they’re a little more set within traditional boundaries, it’s something that needs to be explored”.
I know that music also plays a big part in the film. How did you go about curating that soundtrack? Did you want to create a dialogue between the two music styles of Arabic rap and American country?
“Yeah. Well, there were two things. One was that I really wanted to license this whole bunch of songs, one to sort of represent the traditional farming community there, which is the country songs, we got Rosanne Cash, we got Ashley Monroe, some really great songs that I think are very emotionally connected to the love story as well. Then on the other side, it was really great to be able to seek out Palestinian rap and some really interesting Arab artists because that’s the kind of music you don’t often see juxtaposed on North American prairies, so it was a chance to do something quite new on film.
“Then I found that amazing singer-songwriter called Brooke Palsson, who did the songs, that were Lisa’s songs specifically. Lisa doesn’t say very much, so I think what she says in her songs is very important, and Brooke gave us some beautiful songs to work with”.
Your film has been said to be a mix between Ang Lee’s 2005 film Brokeback Mountain and Tom Harper’s 2018 film Wild Rose. Did either of these two films specifically inform your screenplay?
“I didn’t draw on them specifically. I think they’re good comps for the film because of the role that music plays and because of the ‘gay relationship in a small town’. What great films to be compared to, but I was not going out to make one of those. I think it was more the immigration and the ‘reaching across the boundaries that separate people’ that was more important to me in this film than an LGBTQ story per se.
“But really, when I knew I wanted to shoot it in a small town in the prairies, I did look at Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and I looked again at Days of Heaven, Terrence Malick’s film, just to see what’s been done in that space before and see how I could do things a little differently. We didn’t have anything like the time and the space or the budget that they had, but where we could, I wanted to try to get characters with the sun going down behind them, which is not easy to do when you have a big crew to wrangle”.
Moving away from Polarized and onto your work on Netflix’s You, how did you find going from being on such a small independent project to suddenly being on this big production?
“Really, I was standing in a field in Manitoba, and then I was on the Warner Brothers lot in England, so it was a big contrast. I’ve done a lot of series directing, but I was thrilled to do You, it was the first Netflix show that I’ve done and the first one that I shot here in the UK. It was very important to me to keep getting better and better experience as a director, and working on something like You was great because they have decent budgets, the sets are beautiful, and the cast and crew are super professional. You get to shoot the most beautiful places in London, it was phenomenal, I loved it”.
Was there anything you did to put your imprint on the episode that you directed?
“Yes, you know, it’s always important to do that in a way, but within the world of the show, you don’t want to be messing around with that. But yeah, it is important to me because I’m not a person who’s just a series director for hire, I come from the independent movie space, so for me working with the actors is a very important role that I tend to take quite seriously when I’m working on a series.
“Some directors find that intimidating because you’ve got Penn Badgley, and he’s been playing that role for years, but when actors love what they do as he does, they usually welcome a director who’s got a point of view about a line or what’s happening in a scene. Usually, we’ll gel on that, sometimes, I’ll suggest something that we could play differently just to kind of have an alternative. I think it’s in the directing to the actors where I felt that I could put my stamp on that”.
Did you find that the production allowed you a lot of creative freedom?
“Yeah, I didn’t find it restrictive. There was definitely a certain look and a certain set of rules that you need to follow. You is very specific as well, it’s about that main character’s gaze, so you’re always looking at things from his perspective, then looking back at him looking. So there are elements that you have to have in every scene. But I kind of like it; it’s like writing a poem but saying, ‘Oh, you have to write a haiku’. If you’ve got that set of rules, it gives you the freedom within that to think about how you can make things creatively interesting. So for me, that tends to be in the camera movement in the work with the actors, but it’s always connected to what the scene is about.
“I’m not a fan of doing smart-ass shots just for the sake of showing people that a new director showed up. I really like it to be elegant and connected to the emotional core of the scene, as I do with my own films”.
As an LGBTQIA+ filmmaker yourself, are there any LGBTQIA+ films that you could specifically recommend, or any ones you’ve found particularly inspiring?
“I’m working on a rom-com next, and one of the films I go back to is Saving Face by Alice Wu; I love that film. It’s about two Chinese girls who fall in love with each other, but again, the tension of their relationship in a culture where it’s not necessarily appreciated was interesting, but it was a fun light way to do it, and I really loved that film. I guess Tár, which I did think was a really clever film, and really well made, but, yeah, it didn’t do much for positive representation! But nevertheless, an important story to tell and an interesting spin to have a woman be the kind ‘Me Too’ person there.
“I also voted for Everything Everywhere All at Once [during the 2023 BAFTAs], I loved that movie. I just thought it was just very fresh and very original, and I think that by itself is worth rewarding”.
When it comes to Polarized, if there were one message you’d want audiences to take away from the film, what do you hope it will be?
“That life is only worth living when you’re growing, when you’re being true to yourself, and when you have integrity with who you are. So, as much as we need community as much, as we need tradition, they only serve us as long as they allow us that freedom, and when they become restrictive, as they do in Polarized, and dictate to us who we can love or who we should be with or how we should live our lives; move past it”.
That’s a brilliant message! Then finally, what for the future? Are you going to be working with Netflix again?
“Well, I hope so, I’d love to, I’m definitely going back to do more directing for series, but I’m currently writing the pilot for a series based on my last two novels, The Athena Protocol. I’m working on that with Village Roadshow and Gran Via, who did Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, it’s a fantastic team, I’m writing that pilot, and then we’ll go out to see if we can get it made with Netflix or whoever. Other than that, just prepping my next feature, which is a rom-com set in the South Asian community, queer leads as well. So we’ve got a whole slate of projects that we’re getting up there, but all of them are led by women, LGBTQIA+ and women of colour. So flying the same flag but in a lot more commercial fun genres.
Article reprint from Far Out UK Magazine written by Calum Russell