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Review: The World Unseen (2007)

Director: | 94 minutes | | Actors: Lisa Ray, , , , , Grethe Fox, Colin Moss, , , , , Amber Rose Revah, , , Ethan Sarif-Kattan, , , ,

A forbidden love in apartheid-ridden South Africa, that is the exciting and poignant starting point of Shamim Sarif’s film, based on her own book “The World Unseen”. The surprising thing is that this is not about the love between a white person and a black person (although an example is also given in the margin), but the love between two women. Miriam (Lisa Ray) and (Sheetal Sheth) are both daughters of Indian immigrants in South Africa, but lead completely different lives. While Miriam has struggled to emerge as a businesswoman – she runs a café-restaurant together with the elderly Jacob (a beautiful David Dennis) – Amina has become entangled in a marriage and she has to care for her children. But she longs for more. When one day she enters Miriam’s restaurant, a woman who wears trousers and a shirt against all conventions, she becomes fascinated by the new possibilities that Miriam imagines.

“The World Unseen” is set in Cape Town in 1952, just four years after the official start of racial segregation and three years after the legal ban on intermarriage. Shamim Sarif focuses on the community of Indian immigrants, a group that is rarely discussed in films about apartheid. They too were labeled as blacks and had to adhere to the same white rules as all other colored people. Based in part on stories from and about her grandmother, Sarif has written a story about a woman who continues to oppose the racial rules, but also the conventions of her own people. Because the world unseen also refers to the world of meddlesome Indian relatives who sit around behind closed doors, gossiping and planning opportunistic marriages.
You expect a film that addresses these themes to be very heavy. But “The World Unseen” presents us with a Cape Town full of stereotypical mean whites who are hard to take seriously. It is all well-intentioned from Sarif, but at no point do you actually feel the tension and unrest. Not even when Amina’s sister-in-law comes along with her white husband and is hunted by the police. There are no deaths, no irreparable damage, none of that. It’s all turned on too lightly. The characters that populate Sarif’s story are also largely stereotypes. This makes the film very much like a soap, while it is certainly not intended. That’s a shame, because it makes the film a lot less gripping than it could have been.

“Nothing can stop you from falling in love …” is the rather clichéd and moreover misleading tagline for this film, which for unclear reasons is also labeled as a lesbian drama by many reviewers. While there is hardly any lesbian romance. The reason Amina is so attracted to Miriam is that she is the epitome of the life Amina secretly wanted to lead herself: that of a free-spirited, no-strings-attached woman. It is admiration rather than love on Amina’s side and it is Miriam who keeps making advances. The film is therefore mainly about oppression and discrimination. It is a pity that both themes are only poorly presented. Sarif’s picture of Cape Town is too lovely, too picturesque. But it is good that these kinds of films are made. After all, anything that denounces discrimination and oppression deserves to be seen. And to be honest, it is a pleasure to see Lisa Ray and Sheetal Sheth at work.

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