Meet the Queer Filmmaker Who Did Feminist Wrestling Before ‘Glow’

Pakistani-Canadian comedian and screenwriter Fawzia Mirza told us about the real-life ex that inspired her award-winning new feature ‘Signature Move.’

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Jul 21 2017, 12:00pm

Signature Move is one of those movies that reminds us queer narratives are still best left in the hands of queer filmmakers, and the same goes for diasporic narratives. The film's screenwriter and star Fawzia Mirza tells a deceptively straightforward coming-of-age love story. Deceptive in that every little detail communicates so much about the various overlapping identities of each character.

Signature Move had its premiere at this year's South by Southwest, where it was picked up by Amazon Video Direct. Before it's available to stream, it will screen at Vancouver's Queer Film Festival August 11 and 12. In it, Mirza plays Zaynab, a lesbian Pakistani-American woman living with her newly widowed mother. She starts seeing Mexican-American bookstore owner Alma (Sari Sanchez) after they meet at a bar. On the side, Zaynab is learning to wrestle from a pro who owes her a favour. Wrestling, it seems, gives her an outlet for the sometimes stressful complexity of her relationships. As Zaynab and Alma grow closer, they realize how differently they express their queerness––Zaynab isn't out to her mother, who still expects to see her marry a man. Alma, on the other hand, has a much more open relationship with her mother, a retired wrestler in her own right. This clash allows the film to explore the intersecting identities of each woman without judging either or coming off preachy.

One of the great ways the film captures Zaynab and Alma's different but overlapping identities is in its use of language. Zaynab speaks English in most of her interactions, but she and her mother alternate between English and Urdu at home. Likewise, Alma's Mexican family move back and forth between English and Spanish. Even as a white Canadian guy, this detail struck a chord. Coming from a family with a francophone-Québecois mother and an anglophone-American father, the subtle but constant shifts from one language to the other––either casually in mid-sentence or to add emphasis––felt spot on.

I recently chatted with Fawzia Mirza on the phone about how Signature Move came about. She had just gotten home to Chicago after screening the film at LA's Outfest, where it won the US Grand Jury Prize. Mirza is best known for her comedy and her original characters like Kam Kardashian (the disowned, gay Kardashian sister) and the Muslim Trump (Donald's illegitimate daughter Ayesha). She also had a major role in the 2015 web series Her Story, following the romantic lives of queer and trans women.

Screenwriter and star of 'Signature Move' Fawzia Mirza. Photo by Rebecca Ciprus

VICE: Where did the idea for Signature Move come from?
Fawzia Mirza: The relationship in the film between a Pakistani woman and a Mexican woman is inspired by my actual relationship with my ex-girlfriend, who was Mexican––well, she still is Mexican. She didn't lose her ethnicity in our breakup. As we were dating, we found that these two seemingly different communities of people, Pakistanis and Mexicans, actually had a lot in common. Whether it was the way our mothers are and the way they mess up colloquialisms, or the kind of respect that we have within our families, or our culture, or some of our traditions, or our obsession with mangoes and cilantro.

And why wrestling?
I was on a late night comedy talk show in Chicago, and one of the other guests on the show was a former WWE wrestler named Lisa Marie Varon, and Lisa Marie was doing her finishing move, or her signature move, on the talk show host. She was so strong and so badass, and I wondered how our women's stories and feminism doesn't include these women wrestlers. And if the Pakistani woman wrestles, then you could add this other layer of unexpected connection where this Mexican woman has this history of lucha libre in her family.

I just recently watched Netflix's GLOW. What do you think it is about women's wrestling that's connecting with people right now?
What's so funny is I really wanted to turn Signature Move into a TV series, and then everyone started talking about GLOW, and Jenji Kohan's making it, and I'm like "Damn it! Damn it!"

I was thinking about these kinds of non-traditional spaces and very queer spaces that I started being a part of in Chicago, where you end up having to create and find spaces that you feel safe or that your community feels safe, whether they're burlesque shows, or drag shows, or women's arm-wrestling, or dance parties, or concerts that are geared towards creating a culture that's deeply inclusive. It felt actually really natural when I met this wrestler––why wouldn't there be an underground wrestling party that was all women, very queer, lesbian-inspired, and powerful, as a way of creating an empowering feminist space?

It's really fun to go back to these documentaries and these shows and try to re-analyze them and break that down and see a lot of the problems that exist within and try to reformat them and reclaim them. I think that's happening a lot with wrestling and lots of other spaces. Like, I would love to make an all-women, feminist, lesbian Miami Vice.

I would definitely watch that!
...And of course I would star in it, you know what I mean?

How do you combine these larger ideas with the more autobiographical elements of the film?
Having a wrestling world with a Muslim world, part of doing that means putting these groups together where you think, "that doesn't make sense. Muslims are like blank, Mexicans are like blank. Women are like blank. Lesbians are like blank." It's a way of playing with these formulas that we think are possible in one space or in one community or in one world. For the most part when you see Muslim women, someone's trying to save them, or we're still seeing them being killed, or tortured, or being aggressors or terrorists. It felt really important that this be as regular and relatable as possible. Because there are plenty of the other stories happening right now. That wasn't my job.

Was it hard to leave that in another director's hands? It sounds like you had a clear vision for what you were doing with this screenplay.
Before I even met [ Signature Move's director] Jennifer Reeder, I knew her work, and she makes these very auteur-style, gritty, young-girls-coming-of-age stories that are a little David Lynch-y sometimes, and a little more gory, and beautiful. She gets that feminist, female experience so well. I don't think that we only come of age when we're 13, because I definitely didn't. That was one coming of age, but I'm probably going to have three more coming of ages. That's how I hope to continue to push and evolve and grow. And so her ability to work with these kinds of stories is really, really powerful.

Can you tell me about the use of language in the film?
When I think of why I started creating anything, it was because I didn't see my identities represented. And language is everything. I grew up in a household where my mom was like "you have to speak in Urdu," and everything was either me speaking Urdu or a combination of language. That feels like the soundtrack of our lives. And not just my life, but so many people I know, and so without that, it would have felt inauthentic, which I know is a completely unpopular device to use in a western romantic comedy, but it just felt like that's real. And it's another way of showing the similarities between the communities of people.

Zaynab (Mirza) making her wrestling debut in Signature Move

I'm curious to hear you talk about Zaynab's mother. The portrayal felt so incredibly compassionate to her perspective.
Yeah, Zaynab's mother is played by Shabana Azmi, Indian film legend, and the last time she played a character in a film where women love women was 20 years ago in the Canadian film Fire, where she played the woman who loves a woman. She's a brilliant actor, and really when I thought of who would play this role, there was nobody but her.

It sort of goes back to portraying a Muslim woman as a real human being versus someone who needs to be saved, or is being oppressed. People may look at me, juxtaposed against my mother. I wear jeans with zippers on the knees and T-shirts with holes and lots of denim and have short hair. And my mother wears shalwar kameezes and hijabs every day, but the two of us are really exactly alike, and the reason I am the way I am, and my spirit, or my power, or my strength, even my smile––they all come from her. I feel like one of the radical things we did in this film was to normalize people.

There are so many examples of queer representation coming from non-queer filmmakers that tend to focus more on that clash too.
Right, and I think that relationships are complicated. Regardless of whether you're in a heteronormative long-term relationship with 2.5 kids and a white picket fence, relationships, life, and love are complicated, and I think that that's okay. It's more about getting to a point of some sort of connection between mother and daughter, and honestly that's one of the number one things that I see as how we can change the world: empathy and connection between individuals.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Follow Frederick Blichert on Twitter.

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