Eastern Eye (UK)
Boundaries of queer love in US put to the test in Polarized
ASIAN DIRECTOR’S NEW FILM ALSO EXPLORES ANTI-MIGRANT SENTIMENT
A LOVE story between a Palestinian Muslim woman and an American Christian woman in a town simmering with racism and segregation is a snapshot of modern day America, says director Shamim Sarif of her new film, Polarized.
“It (Polarized) was inspired by (US president Donald) Trump coming to power and then Brexit, because it felt to me like there was a lot of anti-immigration sentiment being leveraged for those votes,” Sarif told Eastern Eye.
“I just felt this kind of sorrow that in 2023, people can still be separated by their race, their religion – differences that should not be keeping people apart.
“This is what inspired me to write Polarized; it explores how two young women can overcome these challenges.”
Sarif was born in London to Indian parents who left South Africa in the 1960s to escape apartheid. Growing up in a south Asian Muslim family, “the immigrant experiences are very familiar to us”, Sarif said.
She now holds dual Canadian and UK citizenship and also works in the US, where she has seen anti-immigrant sentiment. Sarif said, “I have felt an increase in subtle racism in many places. What people like Donald Trump have done and a lot of far-right politicians too, is make it okay to say things that people were previously ashamed of saying and thinking and feeling – delineating people by their skin colour or where they’re from or their accents.
“There’s been a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment,” she said.
In Polarized, Holly Deveaux stars as a white farm worker who is fired for racism and then falls in love with her Palestinian boss, played by Maxine Denis.
Confined to a town where Muslims and Christians don’t mix, the women are forced to either break the barriers separating them, or settle for the lives their respective families had planned for them.
“They live in a small town, so actually, the proximity is not a problem. What actually keeps them apart is just the ingrained prejudice on both sides,” said Sarif.
“One of them comes from old, traditional white farming family who has lost their farm. The other is from an immigrant Palestinian Muslim family. And there’s just a world in which they never cross over, because of religion and economic factors.
“Also, the Palestinian families have done very well in the town and there’s a bit of resentment about that because the white farmers are struggling. When these two women come together, it causes a lot of problems for their families who perceive that they shouldn’t be friends and they shouldn’t be a couple.”
The film’s title is derived from the physical and cultural polarisation the town’s residents experience.
Sarif said, “Here’s this tiny town where people literally shop across the street from each other and eat across the street from each other, but would never cross that street to go and eat in that (white) diner or go and eat in the Palestinian deli.
“It was just a physical polarisation I felt was happening in the world and I wanted to put a microcosm of it in this little town.”
The filmmaker, who identifies as queer, said she had drawn on her own experiences as well as those of her wife and production partner, Hanan Kattan, who is of Palestinian heritage.
“We know first-hand the challenges and taboos that continue to exist around being queer in eastern and Muslim cultures,” she said. “I grew up with a very liberal upbringing. But at the same time, when I realised I was queer, I knew that was going to be a problem.
“We’re going back now 27 years, since I met my partner Hanan, who’s Palestinian Christian and I’m Indian Muslim.
“Both of us came from eastern cultures which were not particularly open to queer relationships.
“It was a very difficult process for us to be together in terms of our family dynamics, not in terms of us personally. The film explores those kinds of issues that families have, because they want the best for you - from their perception. That’s very much coming from our experiences.”
Sarif revealed that in her 20s, she was about to get into an arranged marriage and met a potential groom from her local mosque. Ironically, she ended up meeting her life partner in the encounter.
“I was ready to settle down and he was a very lovely guy. He introduced me to Hanan, who was his best friend at the time. He’s gone on to have a very happy marriage and he came to our civil partnership ceremony, so everything turned out okay,” said Sarif. “It’s funny this happened when I was trying to make an effort to do the right thing as my family perceived it at the time.”
Sarif conceded both their families were not happy, but said she and Kattan “stuck to our guns” and the families “had no choice but to come around or cut us off”.
How does she juggle being queer and her Muslim family background?
“I don’t juggle it, is the answer,” Sarif said and added, “I am very accepting of who I am. I don’t see it being an issue. My relationship with religion is not based on my sexuality.
“I’ve had my own journey from being brought up very religious to not being religious. But that is not to do with any particular religion, it’s to do with my philosophy, which was more about humanism and looking within yourself for your ethics and your beliefs.”
As an award-winning novelist, screenwriter and director for film and TV, Sarif wants to use her platform to tell the stories of those “often get forgotten” by the mainstream media, such as south Asians, immigrants and the LGBTQ community.
Her previous work includes the novel and film The World Unseen which starred Lisa Ray and Sheetal Sheth as two Indian South African women who, during apartheid, fall in love in a racist, sexist and homophobic society. The World Unseen debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2007 and went on to win 23 awards internationally.
“I like to push the boundaries of the way queer women of colour are portrayed,” said Sarif.
“With Polarized, I believe it’s one of the first times in cinema when we see Palestinian immigrants on screen who are successful, driving scientific innovation, and in the case of co-lead character Dalia, also queer.”
She added: “After my first couple of movies and books, I was inundated with messages, a lot from women, mostly from Pakistan and India, who were so excited to get some representation in a positive way of LGBTQ women of colour.
“Representation matters. The more that we see LGBTQ characters as people, rather than just an abstract group to be feared or kept away from in some way, the better. That’s how barriers are slowly broken down.”
Sarif spoke of her determination to show a different side to Palestinians, with media often solely focused on the IsraelPalestinian conflict.
“It was a nice way to change up the way that Palestinians are shown in film, which is quite often, if it’s not terrorists, then it’s as dispossessed refugees, which is definitely the case for many Palestinians, sadly. But there is a whole diaspora out there, like Indians and South Asians, who don’t really get put up there on screen,” Sarif said.
“It’s good to see Palestinians represented as people who are actually innovators and entrepreneurs, and successful business people.
“I was happy to be able to explore the way immigrants can add to the economy, especially women.”
Sarif said she will continue to “shine a light” on these communities in her upcoming work.
“You’ll be happy to know all my upcoming work has women of colour in them,” she laughed.
“We’ve got another film that we’re hoping to shoot by the end of this year, which is a rom-com about two Indian mums who try and arrange a wedding between their daughters.
“We have a number of series in development with one being a south Asian version of Pride and Prejudice called Pride Prejudice and the Patels.
“Hanan and I will always stick to our core and our production company will always do the widest possible range of stories for women, women of colour and often queer characters as well.”