Defining a genre for any film can be tricky, but actor-filmmaker Fawzia Mirza has a very specific one in mind for her 2017 feature-length debut “Signature Move,” which was screened at a lecture organized by the Program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and co-sponsored by the LGBT Center last Friday. “It’s definitely, to this day, the only Muslim-Mexican-Pakistani-queer-wrestling-rom-com-mom-com in the world,” Mirza, who co-wrote and starred in the film, said with a laugh in an interview with the Daily. Despite its apparent esotericism, “Signature Move” came as naturally to Mirza as life itself. “The film is deeply inspired by my relationship with a Mexican woman … That was my actual experience,” she said.
“Signature Move” premiered at South by Southwest (SXSW) in March 2017. Tufts was its latest stop on a long and decorated tour of the festival circuit that has included a Grand Jury Prize at L.A. Outfest, a Best Director Award for Jennifer Reeder at FilmOut San Diego and a nomination for the SXSW Gamechanger Award.
The film follows Chicago lawyer Zaynab (Mirza), who strikes up a relationship with the effervescent Alma (Sari Sanchez) as she navigates a strained relationship with her recently widowed and live-in mother Parveen (Shabana Azmi). All the while she begins to dabble in the world of underground lesbian professional wrestling.
Women’s professional wrestling is a bold new frontier for queer filmmaking, and it is one that came to Mirza by happenstance.
“I was on this late-night comedy talk show in Chicago one night … the guest before me was Victoria from [World Wrestling Entertainment],” she recalled. “She performed her signature move on one of the hosts of the show.”
The sight of Victoria body-slamming a talk show host instantly caught Mirza’s interest.
“She was such a badass, and I thought, ‘How has feminism forgotten about these women? Why haven’t we told the story of these women?’” she explained.
From there, she snowballed: “It got me thinking of the lucha tradition in Mexican culture, and how fun it would be to incorporate that, and how unexpected for the Muslim character to be into that.”
Once the wrestling component of the film had been established, Mirza began to notice parallels between queer culture and the campy, pageant-like world of the sport.
“There’s so much drag in it,” she observed. “Wrestling is so performative … and lucha, with the masks, and having your wrestler name is as important as your drag name.”
For Mirza, watching a professional wrestling match became akin to a uniquely queer experience: “It’s a place … [where you’re] free to express yourself … It felt like a gay dance party” she added. “You could go to the lucha-inspired wrestling night — that would definitely happen in Chicago.”
Setting “Signature Move” in Chicago was a no-brainer — it was the backdrop of the real-life relationship on which the film was based. During the production process, however, Mirza, who has since relocated to Los Angeles, found herself crafting a love letter to her first queer community in the city.
“I’m originally Canadian, from Nova Scotia, but Chicago is the city where I went to gay bars for the first time,” she explained. “It has one of the largest populations of South Asian people and Mexican people in the country, and I think it’s a city where different intersections find each other through the queer identity.”
The romance between Zaynab and Alma is certainly one born of a cosmopolitan existence, but just as Mirza previously discovered, their relationship quickly opens up parallels between their backgrounds.
“One of the things I had been aware of dating a Mexican woman was the connections across our cultures — across food and mothers and families,” she said.
It is precisely this complicated mother-daughter relationship that Mirza sought to use to open up a new avenue for queer storytelling. She aimed to expand queer narratives beyond a typical coming-out story by exploring the tension between Zaynab and Parveen, who scours their block with binoculars for potential husbands for Zaynab.
“That concept, while, yes, we live in America, yes, it’s 2019, that’s true for some people in some spaces … that’s still a certain level of privilege,” she noted. “I think it’s still exceptionally important, even today, we still have to recognize … when we talk to people about coming out, if it’s safe for them to do so in their life, in their family, in their lived experience.”
This other relationship that Zaynab and Alma share in the film — both being first-generation and between immigrant mothers and their American-born children — paints two very different pictures of the complex push-and-pull between homeland and adopted home. For her part, Parveen’s obsession with Pakistani soap operas acts as a nebulous tether to what she has lost.
“There is this very rich, robust TV drama culture in South Asia — similar to the way telenovelas are very popular in Hispanic communities,” Mirza explained. “For a lot of immigrants, when you come to the United States, especially if you’ve lost someone or you don’t feel connected to certain parts of the culture, you go inwards, and you’re seeking connection to where you came from.”
Fittingly, one scene in the film features Alma and Parveen bonding over the former’s beloved telenovelas. According to Mirza, moments like this are what make Parveen, who was partly inspired by her own mother, at once a specific and universal character.
“I think the greater narrative we’ve seen in America for Muslim women … is that these women need to be saved,” she said. “The narrative I very intentionally wanted for this woman was that she doesn’t need to be saved; she’s just sad and grieving, feeling disconnected … which I think is deeply relatable across all cultures, all religions and all ages, really.”
The filmmakers of “Signature Move” have certainly inverted this narrative ascribed to Muslim women, though making a political film was never their intention.
“When I started writing the film, it wasn’t because Donald Trump had talked about Muslims and Mexicans in the same sentence … that was my actual life,” she explained. “It just so happened that suddenly, Muslims and Mexicans … we were hot-button groups.”
“Signature Move” was filmed before Trump was elected in 2016, but it did not premiere until after his inauguration. While this has given the film more topical heft, Mirza stressed that this relevance has been ascribed to the film externally: “It’s impossible for these groups not to be inherently politicized because of the climate of this country.” More important to Mirza is the journey to fully inhabiting one’s identity: “I am a Pakistani queer Muslim woman … I don’t say that because I am trying to be political — I am inherently politicized by virtue of just claiming my identity, and being unapologetic about living at those intersections.”
Mirroring Mirza’s own lived experience, “Signature Move” has much to say about navigating the various crossroads of one’s identity, but the film prefers not to be didactic about it. In lieu of heartfelt speeches, we are cued in through more organic moments like Parveen finding her way to one of Zaynab’s wrestling matches, or Alma reminiscing with her mother about the latter’s luchadora days. It feels fitting for a filmmaker and actress who does not see anything inherently defiant about inhabiting her selfhood — to simply be, for Mirza or Zaynab or anyone else, seems to be enough and more.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the Tufts programs responsible for putting on the lecture. The Program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies designed and funded the event, and the LGBT Center co-sponsored it. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily deeply regrets this error.