Through her work in theater, in numerous web series, television and short-movie roles, most of which she created, Fawzia Mirza is an artist activist who is working to break down stereotypes across the labels of race, religion, sexual orientation and gender. She has been successful in her ventures, but none have been as wide-reaching as her first feature film, which she stars in and co-wrote, Signature Move.
Signature Move is the story of a Pakistani-American lawyer with a traditional mother who falls in love with a Mexican American woman. In the movie, Mirza’s lead character Zainab wrestles (literally and figuratively) with sexual identity and cultural expectations.
Directed by Chicagoan Jennifer Reeder, the film also features Sari Sanchez, Bollywood legend Shabana Azmi, and Chicago-based actors Audrey Francis, Charin Alvarez, Mark Hood and Minita Gandhi. Signature Move was filmed in Chicago neighborhoods that usually do not make the big screen — namely Rogers Park along Devon Avenue, Humboldt Park, Pilsen and Little Village. Among its producers are Brian and Jan Hieggelke from New City, the first from their Chicago Film Project.
Signature Move is not only a timely, important and entertaining story that has brought together Chicago talents, but it’s another example of the punk-rock, indie-film DIY philosophy in action.
The Chicago Ambassador’s Bob Chiarito spoke with Mirza by phone while she was in the United Kingdom promoting her movie about her film and her life.
CA) You’ve done so many different things. One-woman shows, television, theater. Signature Move is your first feature film. How did it come about?
MIRZA) I had written a short film called Signature Move that was inspired by my relationship with a Mexican woman, falling in love with her in the city of Chicago. We saw that we had all these connections across two seemingly different communities but communities that actually have a lot in common. The way we speak in our own languages and our food and our cultures, our mothers and family, so it was inspired by that. It became a feature because I had talked to a couple friends of mine who thought the short could be a feature film. I thought, ‘How does one do this?’ I had never written a feature film before, and thought, ‘who would want to work with me?’ I had worked with Lisa Donato on one of her films that she wrote and directed me in and we had such a great collaboration that I called her and said, ‘Listen, there’s this big submission deadline coming up in 7-10 days. Do you want to meet me in L.A. and help me write a feature film from my short film?’ And she is crazy enough that she said yes.
CA) So you wrote it in 7 days?
MIRZA) We did our very first rough draft in 7 days.
MIRZA) Yeah. I was living in L.A. for the year and she came in and stayed with me and we just had a crazy week.
CA) The reaction has been really positive. What’s was it like to have it shown at the Music Box here in Chicago, the city where you live and where the film is set?
MIRZA) It’s been amazing. The Music Box is a beautiful, historic theater where amazing writers, directors and actors have graced the stage. I was lucky enough to have a film I produced sell the Music Box out in 2009. It was a documentary called Fish Out of Water. So, to come back and have my first feature sell out and have a successful theatrical run in Chicago and have a successful run in New York that’s about to start has been amazing. It’s a kind of a dream for a tiny, independent film that not everybody put their energy behind. Now they are, but they didn’t before [Laughter].
CA) One of the things that I took from it is the reminder that there is no universal story for lesbians, just like any other group. Each person has their own journey and story and goes about things as best they can to accommodate their life. How important was that to convey?
MIRZA) In terms of their universality?
CA) In terms of the fact that there is no universal story or universal coming out story in this case.
MIRZA) Right. Definitely. In my own experience, even the phrase “coming out” can be problematic because not everyone’s family is the same. Not everyone’s neighborhood, or parents, or community are the same so everyone’s experience is going to be different. For me, I thought, ‘What am I going to come out about? I’m not going to do any number of things in front of my mother, not because I’m trying to hide it from her, I just won’t. It’s just the way I was raised and I respect that. I think for me, making this movie was a great way for reconciliation of my life and where I come from and creating a space that I hope shows a great deal of empathy for different people. I think that in the west, whether we are talking about North America or the European and Scandinavian west, I think we can get caught up in the fact that this is ‘the right way.’ I think it’s totally valid that that is the way but I also think its valid that if someone can’t do that, whether it’s because they don’t know how or they don’t feel safe or they express that they have additional layers of work to be done, I think that is important for us to recognize. And maybe the two people aren’t meant to be together. It doesn’t mean that there’s a right way and a wrong way.
CA) The film is somewhat autobiographical. Zainab is a Pakistani-American lawyer and you mentioned that it was inspired by a relationship you had with a Mexican woman, yet it is fiction, correct?
MIRZA) It’s not a bio-pic, it’s definitely not autobiographical and it’s definitely not based on all true events. It’s definitely inspired by real relationships and the real city of Chicago and real people I know, and real mothers and daughters and real immigrant experiences. The wrestling is definitely not autobiographical. [Laughter] That was inspired by me being on a late night comedy show in Chicago for another project, Kam Kardashian. I was in character and one of the other guests on the show was a WWE wrestler named Lisa Marie Brown. She wrestles under the name Victoria and I just thought this woman was so cool and so strong and such a badass and I realized that we really don’t hear a lot about women wrestler stories at all in feminism and I wondered about that. I thought it would be a cool way to create plot twist for the Pakistani character in my short film and also in the feature, and it was also another connection that I could draw between the Pakistani character and the Mexican character.
CA) You mentioned about mothers and daughters. If I can ask, how is the relationship between yourself and your mother?
MIRZA) What’s so funny is that I just got off a web chat with her. She’s in Pakistan right now, my brother is getting married in December. She was showing me her eyeglasses that she was trying in the store and asking me which looked better on her. We have a great relationship. I think a lot of what makes me who I am is inspired by her and her energy and her strength. Do we see eye to eye on everything? Definitely not. But I think that’s pretty typical of a lot of families and what’s been cool for us is that we’ve come to a place where there are certain things that we don’t talk about. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not living my life completely, openly and fully. It’s just that I want a relationship and she wants a relationship and we have a good one. One of my next projects is called “Me, My Mom and Sharmila” and it’s inspired by my relationship with my mother and kind of told through our shared love of this Bollywood heroine Sharmila Tagore. I just adopted what was a one-woman play into a screenplay with co-writer Carrie Samundra.
CA) Is your father around?
MIRZA) No, he passed away in 2006.
CA) Just like Zainab’s character in the movie.
MIRZA) It’s definitely true that the experience of loss of a parent can change your relationship with the other parent and that was inspired by truth as well.
CA) I love the comparison in the movie between the Latin soap operas and the Pakistani ones. It was really amusing and great.
MIRZA) Thank you. I’m love that you saw that. You know, one of the events that we did during the theatrical run in Chicago was with a new production company called Gnarly Pop Productions and they hosted a Shimmer Women’s Wrestling Event after one of our screenings. So, a couple wrestlers who were in the movie were there wresting. One of the audience members, a guy, came up to me and said, ‘I’m a wrestling fan and what I love about wresting is that it’s all about inclusivity. And that’s the same thing I loved about your movie, it’s all about inclusivity.’ That was one of the coolest compliments to get from someone who is not a woman, not a lesbian, not gay, not Pakistani or Mexican. He didn’t even live in Chicago but just connected to the material. It was awesome.
CA) Looking over your work, it seems that a lot of it has been driven by you. That is to say, you’ve created many of the roles you’ve played. What does that say about the theater/film industry right now? Is there still a long way to go for women?
MIRZA) I think there’s a long way to go for everybody. I think sometimes the material we watch, some of it’s good and some of it’s not so good but we watch it because that’s what we’re given and that’s what we’re fed and sometimes we don’t want to think too much, we just want to zone out and watch bad television or bad movies. I think there’s definitely work to be done both on the audience side and on the creators side. Hollywood is a place that has a lot of good people and there are definitely bad people. I think part of why I wanted to make my own content was because felt like I was waiting for someone else to tell me that I should play myself or that I should play roles that I look the part of. Some of that is so arbitrary because oftentimes auditions are not real measures whether someone is or isn’t or can or cannot play a certain role. So I think the power of creating your own work is deeply important and I definitely think we have a long way to go. Signature Move is such a reflection of the fact that we all have stories to tell. And I don’t think it’s just as filmmakers. I think we all have the power to whether it’s sharing stories with friends verbally or getting up on the Mosque stage and telling a story or writing a film or writing poetry, short stories, or that novel that you always wanted to write. Or consuming all of that work by independent creators and supporting diverse storytellers — I think we all have to keep doing more and more of that.
CA) After the run at the Music Box and it’s run in New York, where can people see the movie?
MIRZA) The movie will be running at film festivals throughout the rest of the year and into 2018. It will be available on Amazon by the end of November and by February we are hoping that it will be available via Video On-Demand. It’s a really exciting time for us.
Signature Move continues it’s run at the Music Box through October 12. Fawzia Mirza will be back in her hometown of Chicago October 21 to take part in a panel discussion at the OPEN Chicago Business conference.