Thursday, October 25, 2007

LFF: The World Unseen

(dir Shamim Sarif)

Adapted by Sarif from her own novel, this plays a bit like Desert Hearts, as a forbidden romance is played out in the wide open spaces and stifling society of the 1950s, in this case Cape Town, 1952.

Housewife Miriam and cafe owner Amina are emigres from India, occupying a niche somewhere between the native Africans and the ruling whites in the apartheid hierarchy. Amina does her best to resist the restrictions placed on her, running the cafe with her "coloured" partner Jacob, wearing trousers and resisting her family's entreaties to marry. By contrast, Miriam is under the thumb of her husband Omar, who is having an affair with a family friend, and finds herself expecting her third child and trying to run a shop in a remote location outside the city.

Amina proves to be a lifeline for Miriam, reawakening her love of books and encouraging her to question what she has been taught. The two spend much of the film making eyes at each other and it's only a matter of time before they are having "driving lessons" under Omar's nose as their attraction develops. In a parallel storyline Jacob is romancing the white post-mistress, also transgressive behaviour. How will it all turn out?

Beautifully shot, the film is enjoyable but flawed: some characters and underwritten and the ending feels far too glib. The lead performances are uneven: Miriam seems to have stepped out of a 1940s Hollywood film, with her deferential glances and excessively slow speech, while Amina reminded me a lot of the Cay Rivvers character from Desert Hearts. Indeed, Donna Deitch is thanked in the end credits. But, there are intriguing insights into apartheid society and how the different strata could be simultaneously oppressed and oppressive.

Speaking at a publicity appearance the morning after the screening, Shamim Sarif told me that the ending is not meant to focus on the love affair but Miriam's increasing independence. There is no guarantee the romance will continue, but whatever happens, "Miriam will be OK."

She spoke also of the inspiration for the story, her grandparents' and parents' stories from when they lived in South Africa. She said emigre Indians seem to have a "knack of fitting in" and making the best of whatever situation. Nor was the racism expressed by the Indians toward black Africans something she ducked, explaining it as something that occurs in a "system that promotes stepping on people below you."

Her own parents, she said, would have been horrified if she had brought home a black man to marry. She laughed. "As it happened, I ended up with a woman, so a black guy would have been good."

Though set in the past in a disappeared system, the story is still relevant, she said. "People always feel confined in some way", whether from expectations or religion. The film is about "what it takes to think outside the box. It upsets things," she explained. "I think of it as a maturity thing, learning to critique."

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