Signature Move, directed by Jennifer Reeder, and co-written and starring Fawzia Mirza in the lead role, follows Zaynab, a Pakistani Muslim immigration lawyer living in Chicago who discovers a new romance with a Mexican-American woman and, coincidentally, a new passion for lucha-style wrestling. The film balances comedy and drama to explore how these women navigate their cultures, families, and emotions while finding commonalities in the most unexpected places—like the wrestling ring at an underground luchadora event.

No Film School spoke with both Reeder and Mirza during SXSW shortly after their film's premiere at the festival, learning what it takes to make a very American film about Pakistani and Mexican cultures, managing dialogue in three different languages, how to trust a collaborator with your personal vision, and more. The film is currently making festival rounds, including as the opening night film of the 65th Columbus International Film + Video Festival later this month.

"I'm not a wrestler. Not yet. I have never been a professional wrestler, but there's always hope, I guess."

No Film School: Jennifer, how did you first discover this story and what about it attracted you to direct this film?

Jennifer Reeder: This is Fawzia's story, and the film is mildly autobiographical. She wrote the script with Lisa Donato. When the producers asked me to read the script and consider directing it, honestly, I wasn't sure that I was the right director for this film, but I didn't want anyone else to direct it. I really wanted to be part of this important story that featured really interesting, complicated [characters], all women of color. It was a really beautiful and funny love story that also highlighted these vibrant communities in Chicago, that are so often not or maybe even never represented in film.

I lived in Chicago for 20 years. Oh my gosh, you see so many films come out of Chicago that just always do the same location. They represent the same kind of people. So it was also really important to make a film that felt like it was definitely a Chicago film, but the kind of Chicago that people haven't seen yet.

NFS: I would imagine having one of the script's co-writers there as your lead actress—as the script is autobiographical and she's there on set with you each day—was helpful. Talk to us about your collaboration with Fawzia in terms of telling the story.

Reeder: There were times when I didn't quite understand a character's motivation to do one thing or the next. Right? So it was really great to be able to talk to Fawzia. We had long conversations about the relationship between South Asian mothers and daughters. That relationship in the film is really a complicated relationship. It is not at all the relationship I have with my own mother. So trying to wrap my director's head around that relationship and try to represent it authentically wasn't a challenge, it was just really interesting. Then to be able to talk to Fawzia right there about it was super special.

Signature MoveFawzia Mirza and Molly Callinan in 'Signature Move'.Credit: Courtesy of the filmmakers

NFS: Fawzia, can you tell us about how you were introduced to the world of wresting?

Fawzia Mirza: Yeah. I'm not a wrestler. Not yet. I have never been a professional wrestler, but there's always hope, I guess. The story in general is deeply inspired by my relationship with my ex, who is Mexican. Instead of finding differences between a Pakistani girl and a Mexican girl, we actually found that our communities were insanely similar, whether it was food, or culture or the way we love, the passion, etc. etc. There were just all these wonderful connections.

So while I was thinking about that, an idea was brewing in my head. I was on a late-night comedy talk show one night in Chicago as this character that I played for a web series I've written. One of the other guests on that same talk show was a woman named Lisa Marie Varon, a former WWE wrestler, who went by the name of Victoria. She performed her signature move on the talk show host that night. After she did her move, I was just thinking about how our culture and our communities and feminism has forgotten about these women. Where are these women? Where are their stories? So that became important to me to capture some slice of that.

Also, it became another layer of connection between [the characters] Zaynab and Alma where Zaynab, taking classes from a former WWE wrestler maybe trying to find her signature move...which, I mean let's face it, we all have one. You know what I mean? And the connection to Alma, who has a mother who was one of the first luchadoras in Mexico City.

"One of my missions as an artist is to create work that breaks down stereotypes across race, culture, gender and identity. And using comedy as a tool to do that, to talk about divisive topics."

NFS: Was there a version of this story that maybe you'd thought of previously, that didn't involve wrestling whatsoever?

Mirza: Actually, no. There was a previous iteration, a short film called Signature Move, so it always had wrestling in it. One of my missions as an artist is to create work that breaks down stereotypes across race, culture, gender and identity. And using comedy as a tool to do that, to talk about divisive topics. So I'm constantly in search of ways to put a twist on stories, on scenes, on characters.

The stereotypes of Muslims and especially Muslim women is so specific and so narrow. My life is that and much more. Do I know women who maybe fit the stereotype? Sure, but don't we all? But that's of every culture, every race, and of every religion.

This is also a very Chicago story, in the respect that, the city is deeply deeply diverse with immigrants from so many cultures and races and religions. That being said, it is also deeply segregated.

Also, my experience in the queer community in Chicago is that there are these underground scenes, just these queer spaces where we are, and the community is creating its own reality. It's not that I'd ever gone to underground wrestling, but I've gone to lots of these other spaces, where I was like, "Man, I've never seen anything like this."

In many ways, underground wrestling is an example of a really cool space where everybody is welcomed. However you dress, whatever your body type or your gender identity, or whoever you sleep with, or however you love, or whatever the color of your skin, that's a safe place for you, that ring.

"Being able to make someone laugh feels so powerful."

NFS: You have these scenes with Fawzia's character Zaynab training as a wrestler that offer some great comedic moments, but a lot of the film focuses on intimate moments between the two women are trying to figure out their own paths and how to include one another in their journeys. How did you strike the balance in tone between the comedic moments and the dramatic moments?

Reeder: That's a good question. An earlier version of the script had a lot more physical comedy. It was a little daffy really. The more that we would talk about the film, it became evident that what we could present the film with a kind of melodrama, that would parallel the Pakistani dramas that the mother was watching. Or even the telenovelas that get referenced. So how could we make the drama also a little more melodramatic? How can we make the comedy more surprising and not just sort of slap-sticky?

When we watched the film at the premiere [at SXSW] what was so lovely was hearing laughter at all of the right places, especially hearing laughter in moments that we knew were funny when we were going into production but that we weren't sure how directly they would play. Being able to make someone laugh feels so powerful, but also being able to turn that emotion with another scene and really make people tear up. That's the most satisfying thing for a director.

Signature MoveSari Sanchez and Fawzia Mirza in 'Signature Move'.Credit: Courtesy of the filmmakers

NFS: At your premiere, hearing the audience reaction, were there any moments that took you by surprise?

Reeder: There's one of the actors, Molly Brennan, who plays Killian, who's Alma's best mate in the film. She's only in three scenes. We knew that she was funny, but she really got the biggest laughs in those scenes. I love that she sort of steals the scenes that she's in.

Also, there are two scenes that I know in particular that are not funny. They're much more emotional. One of the B camera operators came up to me afterwards and said he started crying really hard during one of the scenes. He's the farthest thing from a Pakistani Muslim lesbian, yet he was deeply touched by parts of the film, and that's so meaningful.

"One of the B camera operators came up to me afterwards and said he started crying really hard during one of the scenes."

NFS: The film delves into the two main characters' cultures. At what point did you come up with the idea of not just telling the story through your character's perspective, but telling the story from both sides culturally?

Mirza: I was in a relationship with someone who acted the lead. One of the things that came up in our relationship was she was white, and she wanted me to come out and I just wasn't quite there yet.

We had these arguments about when is the time [to come out] for you versus me. And what's the right way to come out and how do you do it. Just thinking about that and creating other pieces of content that in your real lives that, these stories of coming out, they're different for everybody. They're so individual and they're so unique to that person or that moment in their life. It may not be safe for someone. It might not feel right for them. They may not have the words yet. They might not have the support system or the strength or the ability, whatever that is.

And it's not just your experience here right? There are other kinds of experiences and they are all valid. I think one of the things we struggle with in the west sometimes, is that people are like, "Well, you don't know what I'm going through." I mean, we try to compare pain. We try to compare trauma. We try to compare experiences. And I don't think we need to compare them. We can't compare pain. We can't compare someone's coming out. We can't compare someone's journey. What we can do is have empathy.

Signature MoveShabana Azmi in 'Signature Move'.Credit: Courtesy of the filmmakers

NFS: The film's dialogue weaves in and out of three different languages. Jennifer, as the director, did that present any specific challenges while you were on set working with these actors?

Reeder: Yeah, definitely. The scripts I have written myself, I'm very very particular about the dialogue and actually don't like people to improvise on set. So one of the things that I'm always aware of when I'm directing other films is the particularities of the cadence, or when a word comes in, or how words are pronounced for instance. So to direct a film in English, Urdu, and Spanish—I mean, know some Spanish, my Urdu is better now than it was, like a year ago. I can say that.

We had a whole cadre of translators on set, primarily to make sure that the language was correct. For instance, in Urdu, some words can more formal or less formal depending on who you are addressing. So that stuff had to be triple-checked.

"I think it's one of the most important parts of the film: to make a film that is about third culture kids, to make a film that's about children whose parents are immigrants, that you can speak a mashup of your language and your parents' language."

For me, I was also trying to pay attention to the cadence of the language. I would check with the translators to figure out if the cadence of the line of dialogue was correct, not just for the language but for the emotional temperature of the scene. That was a lot of triple-checking and getting my own communications skills [synced up] with the translators. So when I would say [to the translators], "Did she sound like she had worry in her voice," I think that's something that another film director or writer would understand what that means, but not necessarily someone who's there just to translate language. Often, I had to figure how to communicate what I was trying to say to the translators.

I think it's one of the most important parts of the film: to make a film that is about third culture kids, to make a film that's about children whose parents are immigrants and to really talk about the language is so important in that you can speak a mashup of your language and your parents' language. But you really understand that's also an American story. It felt really important to burden the audience a little bit with listening to a language they're not familiar with and to read subtitles.

NFS: I was fascinated how easy it was for me to follow everything as they flipped in and out of the languages, even with the subtitles. So kudos to you on that.

Reeder: Thank you.

NFS: What would you say was your biggest obstacle or challenge during production and how did you overcome it?

Reeder: I think that my greatest challenge really was trying to connect with material that I hadn't written and connect with material that is not my own experience. So as a director, trying to authentically present South Asian culture, to present Mexican culture. Like I said, I lived in Chicago for 20 years, so I'm familiar with the north side Rogers Park area, but I don't live there and that's not my culture. I am familiar with Pilsen-Little Village which is a really vibrant Mexican community, but I am not Mexican. So part of it was really trying to connect to the material and portray it authentically, but then also try and bring my own style to the film.

A lot of the films that I have written don't rely on a lot of dialogue to help a story. Often times they're kind of relying on something that's more drifty and visual. But we were able to bring that to this film as well so that we were not pointing at certain things and saying, "This is South Asian, this is Mexican." We were letting the camera drift over these women, these neighborhoods, the colors and textures that are really particular to those cultures and saying, "This is how we are gonna represent these cultures."

Signature MoveMolly Callinan and Fawzia Mirza in 'Signature Move'.Credit: Courtesy of the filmmakers

NFS: Fawzia, as a co-writer of the script and the lead actress, what were you looking for with your working relationship with Jennifer as the director?

Mirza: I was looking for her to not fuck up. No, I'm kidding (laughs).

I wanted someone who would elevate what I'm already doing. Somebody who would bring something that I don't do or don't know how to do. I think the greatest thing that we can do in life, not just in filmmaking, is work with people who know things you don't. I think that makes us better. I think it helps us evolve. I think it teaches us a lot. I think it creates empathy and makes a better project ultimately.

I love Jennifer's work and I wanted her hand on my work and my project. I know that sounds a little awkward, her hand on me. "I wanted her hands on my body. That's what I wanted from director Jennifer Reeder." I just thought Jennifer's style of directing is really wonderful and I wanted, both as an actor and as a creator, that style layered onto the kind of work that I was doing. I think we should constantly work with different kinds of people and different kinds of projects. I think that we just grow better that way.

For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival.

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