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Signature Move pins down tough relationship and cultural questions at OUTeast Film Festival

Chicago-made romantic comedy about "life, love and lady wrestling" comes to Halifax fest, with a Cape Breton connection.
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OUTeast - Signature Move 01
Urban love and Mexican wrestling have a tag team match in the romantic comedy Signature Move, screening this week at the OUTeast Film Festival, running Thursday to Sunday. The film features Sydney-bred star and co-writer Fawzia Mirza.

Chicago actor-writer Fawzia Mirza wore a lot of hats over the course of making her first feature film Signature Move, and also one very cool Mexican Lucha Libre wrestling mask.

And this week, the film itself is jumping through a lot of ropes, as it makes appearances at Halifax's OUTeast Film Festival, while also premiering at Brooklyn's BAMcinemaFest and the Provincetown Film Festival on Cape Cod. For Mirza, who was born in London, Ont., and raised in Sydney, Cape Breton, it's a real Sophie's Choice having to stay in the States this weekend.

"I haven't been to Halifax in years. I wish I could be there," sighs Mirza, who will at least be onscreen at OUTeast on Friday night at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History.

"I'm pretty bummed. ... Why don't I have a teleporter yet? Do you have one I could use?"

Sadly, neither a teleporter nor the vintage '80s scooter that her character, Zaynab, rides around Chicago's North Side was available to whisk her away, north of the border for its first screening in her former home province.

(Editor's Note: since this story was filed, a last-minute schedule change allowed OUTeast to teleport Mirza to Halifax for a post-film Q&A after the 7 p.m. screening, and for the Beers 4 Queers Social later Friday evening at Good Robot Brewing Co.)

But the writer-star of the film and her director Jennifer Reeder have covered a lot of ground with Signature Move since the appealing cross-cultural romantic wrestling comedy had its world premiere in March.

"It's been awesome to get to travel with it, whether it's to Austin for SXSW or London for BFI Flare, or even a few nights ago with my director to Out Film CT in Hartford, Conn., it's been so lovely," says Mirza. "We were the closing-night film in Hartford, and the audience was totally on board. That's the point of creating anything, when you are able to see its impact on other human beings.

"I rolled up onstage as if I was a wrestler, and the crowd gave us a standing ovation, and they were so happy to hang out with us and talk afterwards at the party. That kind of impact is priceless, and so powerful for us right now, and we're still just at the beginning of touring with the film and connecting with audiences."

That connection with audiences is what diverted Mirza from a career as a lawyer into one on stage and screen. When her family moved to the Midwest thanks to a new job in Indiana for her physician father, she opted for law school in Chicago. But after graduation, a lifelong love of acting took over, fuelled by the city's vibrant theatre, comedy and improv scene.

Mirza quickly realized that the best way to be seen was in her own self-created content, leading to her short film The Queen of My Dreams and web series like Brown Girl Problems. And now, with her first feature Signature Move, she's getting attention back home.

"It's been fascinating over the past few weeks reconnecting with people from the Maritimes, at OUTeast and Inside Out Film Fest in Toronto, because so many of them there have ties to Halifax and Nova Scotia. I talk a lot about it in my work. I have a one-woman play that I wrote where I talk about how much that impacted me, growing up as a little brown Muslim kid, surrounded by not so many brown Muslim kids, in the heart of Cape Breton Island.

"Pretty deeply, the formative years of my life transpired in Nova Scotia, and not just any Nova Scotia, but on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, in the heart of coal mines and steel plants and the fishing industry."

There's a semi-autobiographical streak running through Signature Move as well. Zaynab is a lawyer who helps her immigrant clients obtain passports, work visas and Green Cards. She lives with her mother, Parveen (Shabana Azmi), a Pakistani widow who just wants her daughter to settle into a traditional role as a wife and mother, but as we soon learn, Zaynab is anything but traditional as she takes up wrestling under the tutelage of one of her clients, and falls in love with Alma (Sari Sanchez), a Hispanic woman whose mother was a star of the Lucha Libre circuit.

"The mother in Signature Move is definitely inspired by my mother, but she's also inspired by lots of immigrant mothers, South Asian mothers, Muslim mothers. I'm probably not the person you're going to tap to write a period piece about Victorian England. I'm definitely more inspired by the people around me," explains Mirza, who feels the film accomplishes a great deal over the course of an 80-minute independent romantic comedy.

"It's doing all the things that I've dreamed of doing for creating a world for these characters who are just regular people. They just happen to speak different languages and come from backgrounds or worlds that are not seen as much in our movies and TV shows as inhabited by regular people."

Working with co-writer Lisa Donato, Mirza says her initial challenge in expanding her original short-film story into a feature-length script was to respect the voices of those characters. The overall feeling of the film is lighthearted and uplifting, but at the same time, Zaynab, Alma and Parveen are going through some serious changes in their lives, tied to personal issues around culture and gender that don't always align.

"When you're trying to tell a story, your mission is to tell those stories authentically," says Mirza. "And not just as a writer, but you also want to have authentic people play those roles, so they can bring themselves into those roles, and into the words, and inhabit those spaces more fully than you, as a non-Mexican person, or as a non-mother, can imagine.

"Having actual Mexican actors play these roles was key. We didn't cheat anyone by casting anyone who didn't fit those roles, or suit those spaces."

While the through line of the film is Zaynab learning to toughen up emotionally as well as physically as she embarks on what may become the first serious romantic relationship of her adult life, Mirza, Donato and Reeder were also careful to give equal weight to the relationships between the leads and their mothers, which are appropriately complex.

"I like to see it as a love story on different levels," explains Mirza. "It's a love story between these two women romantically, but there's also the love story between mothers and daughters, and different kinds of mother-daughter relationships. Seeing that connection and seeing those parallels and those loves unfolding at the same time, to me that's just real life.

"There's never just one thing happening in our lives at one time. I guess we can compartmentalize, but for the most part, we are experiencing several things all at once."

As Parveen, Indian star Shabana Azmi — who's worked with iconic directors like Satyajit Ray and Deepa Mehta — practically walks away with the movie.

Couldn't you just watch her cut up a papaya all day long?" jokes Mirza, noting that while Parveen's role is largely comedic as she sizes up potential husbands for Zaynab through the living-room window, you are also aware that her life has been shaped by mourning and loneliness, thanks to Azmi's indelible performance.

"You can have great empathy for this woman, and stop thinking about her as just 'a Muslim mother' and see her as a human being who's really going through something. Finding that deep normalcy is how we can actually change the narrative."

As the film progresses, you expect that there will be conflict between Zaynab, her new lover and her doting mother, and a climactic wrestling match to boot. But none of it is neat and tidy, or handled in a formulaic way that ties everything up in a nice rainbow ribbon. As in life, Zaynab and Alma, and Zaynab and Parveen, will have a lot of work ahead of them to get their relationships back on track, and the more important story point for Mirza to settle is that Zaynab gets a better handle on who she is and comes to terms with where she comes from so she can move forward as an independent person.

"If it feels good or safe for you to do so, then there's something really empowering and beautiful about that," she says. "And you also need to love yourself. There's a self-love story here as well, which really comes out when Zaynab goes to give her big 'I want you' speech to Alma. Instead of what you expect, she essentially says, 'You know what? I get it, and I like you a lot, but I'm cool too, and what I'm going through is different than what you're going through, and I've got to deal with me first.'

"I felt like that's something I had to go through in my life to become the person that I am, and it's done in a really fun way (in the film), but the truths of the matter run really, really deep for me."

OUTeast Film Festival

Thursday

6:30 p.m. - A Toast to Opening Night (Halifax Central Library)
8 p.m. - The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (Halifax Central Library)

Friday

7 p.m. - Signature Move screening (Museum of Natural History)
9 p.m. - Tom of Finland screening
10 p.m. - Beers 4 Queers Social (Good Robot Brewing Co.)

Saturday

12:30 p.m. - Canadian Shorts (Museum of Natural History, free)
2:30 p.m. - International Shorts (Museum of Natural History)
4:30 p.m. - The Fabulous Allan Carr screening (Museum of Natural History)
7 p.m. - A Date for Mad Mary screening (Museum of Natural History)
9 p.m. - Behind the Curtain: Todrick Hall screening (Museum of Natural History)
10 p.m. - Can't Stop the Music party (Good Robot Brewing Co.)

Sunday

11 a.m. - OUTeats Brunch & Awards (Good Robot Brewing Co.)
8:30 p.m. - Romy & Michele's High School Reunion "Quote-Along" screening (Good Robot Brewing Co.)



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Stephen Cooke

About the Author: Stephen Cooke

Stephen Cooke is an award-winning arts journalist who's been covering the local, regional and national scene for over 25 years.
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