Commentary: Investor only had money in his dreams

Con man nearly sent 'Straight' down the drain

"Straight" shooting: For independent filmmakers one of the most challenging aspects of the game is raising production money, after which they can typically take a deep breath and get started shooting.

But that's not always the case. For Shamim Sarif life actually became much more difficult after she finally found the investor she needed to make her directorial debut romantic comedy "I Can't Think Straight." The problem was that her dream investor turned out only to have money in his dreams and as a result the production came close to going down the drain.

Fortunately, Sarif, who also co-wrote the film's screenplay, and Hanan Kattan, her producing partner in Enlightenment Productions as well as her life partner, were able to stay the course, shoot the London-set film and bring in new financing that happily was for real. The resulting film, opening Nov. 21 in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto via Regent Releasing, examines some explosive issues, but not in a heavy-handed way.

The ongoing Middle East conflict between Arabs and Israelis is seen in "Straight" from multiple points of view within a wealthy Arab family living in London. The film's love story is between two beautiful young women, one of whom (Leyla, played by Sheetal Sheth) is a young British Indian woman with a strong Muslim upbringing that regards homosexuality as a sin punishable by death. The other girl (Tala, played by Lisa Ray) is a Christian Jordanian of Palestinian origin for whom a gay relationship isn't nearly as taboo as it is for Leyla.

Directed by Shamim Sarif, "Straight" was written by Sarif and Kelly Moss. It was produced by Hanan Kattan and executive produced by Moss, Lisa Tchenguiz-Imerman and Mervyn Wilson. "Straight" is based on Sarif's third novel. She also has adapted to the screen (and then directed) her first novel, "The World Unseen," about a dangerous relationship between two women in South Africa during the apartheid era. "World," which also stars Lisa Ray and Sheetal Sheth, premiered at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival and is opening Nov. 7 via Regent Releasing.

After enjoying an early look at "Straight," I was happy to be able to focus on the making of the film with Sarif when she called from London recently. "I think of it as a drama and definitely a love story that has comedic elements," she told me. "I wanted to talk about a subject and a journey that a lot of people have (about) sexuality and discovering that or, indeed, anything that doesn't fit the conventions of the society you're brought up in. I wanted to deal with it in a more light-hearted way because one can get a little heavy with these things."

Asked about the film's roots, Sarif replied, "I began writing as a novelist and screenwriter simultaneously. I was working on 'I Can't Think Straight' in a novel form and I ended up with a big huge draft, which I was having trouble structuring. My partner, Hanan, as my new producer, very cleverly suggested I should try my hand at a screenplay because I had told her before how often that had helped me in coming up with a really good strong structure and (character) arc. So I went straight to it as a screenplay. Almost as soon as we finished that we had an investor who had expressed interest in 'The World Unseen.' When he read this he kind of jumped ship and said, 'Well, we're in London. This is set in London. It should be a quicker, easier shoot and I want to do this one first."

At that point, Sarif had been taking film directing courses in London and, she said, "It was definitely something I was looking to do, I thought, down the line. But in the end I was able to persuade him (to let her direct). I think he was just looking to keep costs down. So it wasn't that he was going for somebody with huge experience, he was just looking for somebody who was at the right price (and) nobody would be at a better price than the writer, sadly. I managed to talk myself into that job and got thrown onto the set and into quite an interesting experience."

What happened, she explained, was that her investor "turned out to be literally a con man with a police record. Nobody knew about this at the time and we'd never turned up anything on him. So while things seemed to go swimmingly for a few days it then became clear that nobody was getting paid. There was a lot of stress and drama and we were thrown out of locations and days kept getting chopped out of the schedule. It quickly turned into a nightmare shoot where we had to work like crazy, Hanan and I, to keep people on board with us. We managed to keep it together, throwing in a lot of our own cash and a lot of effort and time. But shortly after we finished the shoot the whole thing just collapsed because it just couldn't stay afloat any longer legally and financially.

"We thought we'd lost the film. It was a situation where it was sort of in limbo. I had retained the rights to the screenplay, thank goodness, but we then had over a year's battle here in the courts in London to get back the rights to make the film. The great story about that is that despite all the stress we did get it back, obviously, and we were able to edit it and finish it the way we wanted to see it done. We raised more money with this time very, very supportive investors who just wanted to support the vision of the story and we were able to get it out there. And we're really thrilled now to get a U.S. release for it, as well."



With independent filmmakers and investors the tendency is, she agreed, to believe that someone who says they have the money actually does have it. "You know, there was an element (of believability to him)," Sarif said. "He was living in the center of London. He certainly drove a flashy car. We had our auditions in one of the finest clubs in London. It didn't really occur to us that anybody would go into this kind of situation (without the money to do it) and he was recommended to us by a personal friend.

"So we were on that road and then you start to wonder and things start to crumble, but at that point you're kind of deep in. Of course, you want it to be real. You don't want this to actually be happening. You get to a point where you either have to make it work or let the whole thing go and I think that's where we were. And for that, I have to say, full credit is due to Hanan, who's my partner in Enlightenment Productions, because as the producer of the film -- but in this case a producer who had very limited control, actually no control, of the money -- she really kept it all together."

Why would someone do what her first investor did when it would be obvious to him that without having the money the project was doomed to collapse? "It's still a bit of a mystery to me," she answered. "It seems a very odd thing to do, but we uncovered during the court case that he has a history of doing this. He's had four or five companies that have similarly gone bankrupt. He's started big schemes.

"We actually tracked down three people that we got to be witnesses -- people he'd stolen tens of thousands of Pounds from. I think he was one of these guys who felt like nothing could touch him and he could get away with anything. The idea of being a movie producer and all of that (glamour) I'm sure appealed to him, but he turned out to be a professional crook with a police record. But, unfortunately, all that information came far too late for us."

On the other hand, the good news is that they did get to make the movie. Asked about the film's politics, she said, "It's certainly something that's close to my heart -- the whole Middle Eastern Arab-Israeli thing. It was very interesting to me because in the 12 years that I've been with my partner Hanan, who is of Palestinian origin, I've (become) part of that circle of family and friends who talk very freely about the issues in the Middle East. A couple of our best friends happen to be Arab Jews, as well, so we hear both sides of the story. I really wanted to start to bring this up. I don't think it's been done often in a light-hearted way because it is such a serious subject."

As for the lesbian relationship at the film's heart, Sarif observed, "I look to it as a love story. Obviously, it's a story of sexual awakening very strongly because it's two women from two different cultures dealing with that. What I was trying to say was that even though you can't choose your culture you can choose to follow your heart and that's the most important thing to do. Another reason I wanted it to be more light-hearted was to make it more accessible for people. I wanted people to sympathize with Tala and Leyla and to be rooting for them no matter what your sexuality."

Looking ahead, Sarif noted that she plans to continue directing and "In terms of Enlightenment Productions we're in it for the long term and the mandate for the future is to really make movies that push boundaries a little bit, challenge conventions and push people to look at the world in a slightly different way. It happened that the first two (films) involved the sexuality of the main characters, but that's not necessarily the case for future projects.

"We have a new project we're working on which is called 'Despite the Falling Snow.' That's based on my second novel, published by St. Martin's Press in the States. It's set in post-Stalinist Russia in the 1950s (and is) a story of passion and betrayal and is quite epic. I think for us it will be probably be a step up in terms of the scope of the movie."

They will need to shoot some exteriors in Russia, she added, "because it involves a young man who works for the Kremlin and is a bit of a spy drama, as well. But I think it depends on how we manage to finance it with a co-production. It alternates back and forth between Russia in the '50s and the United States in the present day."

Is it a safe bet to say that all potential investors for the new project will be vetted with care? "No question about that," she laughed. "Extremely careful vetting."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com
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