Love and Longing in Sarif’s The World Unseen

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The World Unseen tells the story of Miriam, married with three children as part of the Indian community in 1950s South Africa. Miriam has accepted her lot, described by Sarif as “a life without choices”. When she meets Amina, a young woman who owns a café in town and who flouts convention by wearing trousers, selling food to black people and by not marrying, Miriam is immediately attracted and intrigued by her. However, the weight of society weighs heavy on our heroine, and she is forced to ask herself: What will it take for her to put convention aside and make her own choices?

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The film explores a number of taboos surrounding relationships, including the very real threats to inter-racial love present in post-war South Africa, all while sensitively addressing the attraction between the two main characters. This world is not just unseen but also unheard, with the film showing a weight of emotion in the many loaded glances and soft touches shared between the two leads, both beautiful women with a luminous screen presence. Sarif explained afterwards that we forget, in these days of instant gratification, how you can be sustained on a look for days, how you can turn it over in your mind and it can soon be all that you think about.


Sarif wanted to use illicit love as a way to explore apartheid, she said, because falling in love is when we can be most open to new ideas, when we want to see through another’s eyes. Miriam’s sister-in-law married a white man and was run out of town, eventually settling in Paris, and their story also helps Miriam to focus on a different perspective. While an awakening is easier to portray in novel form, the film uses symbols and gestures to show Miriam’s journey towards understanding and action.

The story also portrays a huge emotional range for its male characters, many of whom turn expectations on their heads. Contrary to how these stories can often go, Amina’s father is sympathetic towards her, with the women in the family who keep a grip on the patriarchal traditions. Sarif explained that the character of Omar, Miriam’s husband, is another victim of the apartheid regime, and that his frustration and occasional abuse stemmed from being inarticulate. This lack of articulation forces Omar to find other tools to communicate, no matter how toxic these tools can be. As a mother of two teenage boys, Sarif explained she wanted to show how men can be affected by the status quo too, and to portray role models.

All in all, The World Unseen is a beautiful exploration of a complicated, dangerous time and is an excellent portrayal of how the political is personal and vice versa. We need more stories like this.

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