On its face, the feature film Polarized is about a small, sheltered world.
Set in rural Manitoba, and shot in Winnipeg and surrounding rural areas, it is the story of a forbidden love that arises between Lisa (Holly Deveaux) — a farm girl and aspiring songwriter — and Dalia (Maxine Denis), the product of an immigrant Palestinian family who run a new high-tech agricultural business in a small town where family farms used to dominate.
The relationship starts with Dalia firing Lisa from the company for an angry display of racism before things take a surprising turn, when both women acknowledge a mutual attraction thrumming beneath the surface of their encounters.
It is an intimate story, inspired in part by its writer-director, Shamim Sarif, and her own once-forbidden relationship of 27 years with her wife and creative partner, Hanan Kattan, the producer of Polarized (which opened this week in select theatre, including Cineplex McGillivray in Winnipeg).
“It’s an emotional journey for me because it’s one that I experienced myself when I fell in love with someone who was ‘wrong’ from all the traditional perspectives,” Sarif said.
“I was raised Muslim, and she was raised Catholic. I am South Asian, and Hanan is Palestinian. The only thing we had in common was that we were both women, but that didn’t help either.”
The characters’ desire for roots was also a poignant theme in the film, Sarif said.
“My parents were born in South Africa and got moved out of their homes several times as areas were made into white areas,” she said in a Zoom interview.
“They were eventually able to immigrate to the U.K., where most of my family is.”
In her film career, Sarif has filmed an adaptation of her own novel (Despite the Falling Snow, 2017), as well as work for TV series including Murdoch Mysteries and Skymed. The 2021 true crime Lifetime drama House on Fire proved to be means for Sarif to realize Polarized via a connection with maverick Winnipeg producer Juliette Hagopian.
“I had been working with them, trying to get their film off the ground,” Hagopian said in an interview.
“I saw some of her work and I thought it was a good idea because they are all about supporting women and building a community of women filmmakers. So I pitched her to the [Lifetime] executives that I usually work with and I got her House on Fire.”
That experience gave Hagopian a sense of what working with Sarif on a feature film would be like, she said.
“And working with her was great,” said Hagopian.
But the production proved to be tricky in some respects, Sarif said. Shot in the late summer and fall of 2021, the film found itself in competition for crews and cast during an especially busy season for film production.
In September of 2021, the production put out a call for Arab-speaking actors and extras to play member of Dalia’s Palestinian community.
“Most of the key casting came from outside of Manitoba on the Palestinian family side,” Sarif said.
“Even our sons took little roles as well. We pressed them into service. It is difficult to find enough day players.”
Larger themes of polarization
Sarif and Kattan now divide residences between the big cities of London and Toronto.
But in her film, the microcosm of a small town was, for Sarif, a way to address the larger issue of polarization that has taken place in the last few years, especially when it comes to the demonization of immigrants and LGBTQ people.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency in the U.S. and Brexit in the U.K., “there was a lot of extremist rhetoric around people who are different from us, and I was seeing that in smaller towns in U.S. and Canada,” said Sarif.
“It was also troubling to me, after me and Hannah got together 27 years ago, that there are still places where this is still a problem.”
Sarif hopes the film will be seen beyond the LGBTQ demographic.
“I want as many people as possible to see it,” Sarif said. “I want to break out … [of] the sense that it’s a niche film for LGBT audience.”
Part of that is “about challenging the expectations in the presumptions that we all belong in a certain economic or racial community profile,” Sarif said.
“Communities are important. But they can stifle us a little bit, and I think that’s what the story is about.
“I think it’s a very universal theme that would be great to share with many, many people.”