If you ever meet Jennifer Reeder, be prepared to receive a chic black pencil with the word "feminist" written on it in gold letters. "It's a great conversation starter. They're very sexy pencils, and I've probably given away tens of thousands by now," she says. The Chicago-based filmmaker is in London for the premiere of her latest film, Signature Move, which closes the BFI Flare festival. The travelling pencils are Reeder's pet project, part of a strand of personal activism she developed four years ago (when "feminism was a dusty word") after realizing that "there were so many young women who were hesitant to call themselves feminists, even though they were entirely for gender equality and living as feminists."
It is through her film work, however, that Reeder firmly believes she is acting for change. "I feel that my filmmaking is a form of social justice because of the people that it represents or the conversations that I hope it starts." Signature Move is her latest project and first feature film after an array of award-winning shorts, and it does a good job in both departments. Written by Fawzia Mirza (who also stars in it) and Lisa Donato, the film depicts a queer Muslim woman and her love story with a Mexican-American woman; delves into the shared cultures between first-generation immigrants and their children; and explores mother-daughter relationships. It is actually a tender, quite traditional love story. Its radicalism relies on how it really isn't radical at all, breaking tiredly stereotypical ways of representing queerness and women of color.
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Signature Move revolves around the love story between Zaynab, a Pakistani Muslim lesbian played by Mirza, and Alma, a Mexican-American woman played by Sari Sanchez, after they hook up at a bar. The plot is based on a real summertime love affair that Mirza had with a Mexican woman. But the most poignant—and at times comedic—dynamic in the film is the one between Zaynab and her mother, Parveen. After her husband died, Parveen has moved into Zaynab's apartment and basically sits around all day, spying on potential bachelors for her daughter with literal binoculars and watching Pakistani soap operas.
As Zaynab has a one-night stand with Alma which slowly develops into curiosity and affection, she gets into wrestling—she's an immigration lawyer and has accepted lessons as payment from a client. Parveen is inquisitive and gossipy, but Zaynab respects her mother's space, politely rejects her matchmaker hints, and goes about her life. Alma's relationship with her own mother couldn't be more different: They sit around at the breakfast table discussing her sex life; her mother, a former professional wrestler, jokes about how great it would be if she were with a nice Mexican guy instead, but that's as far as any potential conflict goes. This creates friction between Zaynab and Alma, who doesn't understand why Zaynab doesn't come out to her mother: In a heartbreaking scene, Alma declares she "will not go backwards" for anyone.
Jennifer Reeder. Photo by Ulysse del Drago, courtesy of the subject. "The most interesting thing working with Fawzia in particular was having conversations with her about relationships between mothers and daughters in South Asian cultures, and particularly in Muslim culture. I have a very close relationship with my mother, I tell her everything, so it was interesting to talk to Fawzia about how to develop the relationship between Zaynab and Parveen so the audience knows it's a loving, committed, beautiful relationship, but that there are certain things they're not going to talk about," says Reeder. As Zaynab comes to terms with her identity and incipient feelings for Alma, Parveen deals with grief and loneliness—and they quietly help each other through a daily choreography of gestures that the camera catches beautifully.
Reeder's attentive touch adds wit to the film, especially through her penchant for using art direction to tell stories. There's a scene in which Alma is at a bar and her friends call her out on her dismissal of other queer women's paths in life. They then encourage Alma to read a purple book from a pile of "new arrivals" (she's a bookseller); it is called Felt Up: Women Feeling Feelings. Don't google it: There's nothing. "We made the book up!" Reeder laughs. "Props like that fill a lot of the narrative, and it's really important to me to think about them as narrative content." Feel feelings they definitely do. The plot converges in a wrestling match, in a perfectly dramatic—and again comedic—metaphor for the love and family stories at play.
Alma (Sari Sanchez) and Zaynab (Fawzia Mirza).
In a perfect coincidence, webseries Brown Girls, which features the lives of queer women of color in the arts scene in Chicago, was shot in parallel, and Mirza is good friends with its co-creator Sam Bailey. "It happened in a zeitgeist moment," Reeder says. "What I hope is that these projects do bring some attention to the Chicago film and TV community—always under the shadow of New York or Los Angeles—and to the women in it. I want people to be like, 'What's happening with women in Chicago?'"
Signature Move is a slight detour from Reeder's line of work until now, with short films like A Million Miles Away mostly cenered around teen stories that are a little darker and more awkward. "I love teen films. There's so much opportunity for really great art direction, and music production, and wardrobe and hair… The experimentation that happens with teenagers is very cinematic. When I think back on my own life as a teenager it does play out like a film." Reeder was actually a ballet dancer until she took a filmmaking class and "felt like I had recovered some kind of phantom limb."
She has a special focus on stories of trauma and coping, usually pairing an adult who is going through some kind of transition with a teenager, showing how their experiences circle around each other. "I am fascinated by how particular and precise our coping mechanisms are as humans. There are so many films that get it wrong, especially when it comes to how women respond to trauma. We're so used to seeing a woman who turns into a raging bitch or is just crying all the time. In real life we do the most beautifully strange, and trauma can be quite a small thing for some people or a catastrophe for others."
Reeder has spoken out about the lack of opportunities for womenin Hollywood, specifically when it comes to directing "giant" movies. Watching Mad Max recently got her thinking she would love to make a "big bro-ey action film. "I have never made a film that is about masculinity, so I'm curious about that. I have three young sons so I'm surrounded by a lot of boy energy. I owe it to them to make a film that has a lot of that masculine energy, but also that comes from my perspective as a feminist filmmaker. With fire and explosions and car chases… Let's do it!" For now, she is working on re-working many of her shorts into a second feature film, and is "a little bit Twin Peaks, a little bit Sixteen Candles." Sounds like the right kind of mix.
All stills courtesy of BFI Flare Festival. Signature Move opens Wicked Queer film festival in Boston on March 30.