Travelling through 16 cities in one year trying to promote two films, raise two children and run a film production company with her life partner, Hanan Kattan, Shamim Sarif doesn't have the time to be an activist for gay rights.

Then again, she certainly doesn't see herself in that light anyway. First and foremost she describes herself as a storyteller.

"I don't see myself as a gay storyteller, it just worked out that my first two films have that theme," explains Sarif.

She's in South Africa for the local premiere of The World Unseen and was in Pretoria on the weekend to collect 11 Saftas for the film, which opens on the local circuit on Friday.

Written and directed by the 39-year-old - who was raised in London by South African parents of Indian descent - the film tells the story of two Indian women who are unexpectedly attracted to each other.

Set in 1950s apartheid South Africa, the story foregrounds the challenges of individualism at a time when scrutiny was the norm.

Filmed over five weeks in Cape Town during 2007, it is based on Sarif's award-winning novel of the same name.

The book is based on stories she heard from different sources, especially her grandmother.

"The World Unseen is about finding independence and integrity, no matter what. I wanted to portray gay characters as just being," Sarif said.

"I am terrible when it comes to keeping up with gay culture," she laughingly explains how a new neighbour was dismayed by how little attention she and Kattan pay to keeping up with gay trends and happenings.

Though she has to be prompted to think about specific movies she has watched in the past, one film with a gay theme which did have a seminal effect on Sarif was Desert Hearts (1985).

"At the time I thought it was just a great film. You felt by the end you'd changed a little. That, as a filmmaker, is what I strive for.

"I would love it if people left The World Unseen and felt a bit different, just a bit empowered. It's a story about empowerment, this woman realising she can change. Little steps can go a long way to changing your life."

Though Sarif studied English Literature after school she spent almost half-a-decade working with her father in the financial services (writing in her spare time) before she made the shift to full-time writer and then film director.

Given a choice between being an author or filmmaker, Sarif would find it hard to decide, because both feed her passion for telling stories.

In addition to marketing The World Unseen and another film she's directed (I Can't Think Straight), also based on her own work, Sarif doesn't discount turning her second novel (Despite the Falling Snow) into a film.

"It's slightly more epic and needs a bigger budget, because it's on a more majestic scale." (The World Unseen was shot on a $4-million budget using mostly South Africans, supplemented by an Indian technical crew).

Despite the Falling Snow is about an ageing US entrepreneur who looks back at his early start amongst the political elite of Cold War Russia.

But, that's for the future, right now Sarif is concentrating on the two films she's already finished.

Sarif had actually shot the cross-religious lesbian comedy I Can't Think Straight before The World Unseen, but "we had an investor who turned out to be a crook and we lost control of that movie after we shot it."

This prompted her and Kattan (who served as The World Unseen's international producer) to start their own production/ distribution company.

While it is exhausting to run every single aspect of the film process, Sarif describes the process as "the ultimate source of creative freedom".

  • The pair has since regained control of I Can't Think Straight, which will screen as part of the Out In Africa Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, which runs in Cape Town from February 19 and in Johannesburg from March 6.