SPOTLIGHT: SIGN OF THE TIMES

10 Dec 2017

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The filmmaker Fawzia Mirza
The filmmaker Fawzia Mirza

Fawzia Mirza is fine wearing many hats: actor, writer, performer, producer and activist. The power comes from trying to do it all these and not being afraid to embrace these categories, she told me when we met in Chicago last year on the set of her first feature film Signature Move.

The Pakistani-American actor/writer was born in Canada to Pakistani parents from Karachi, before migrating to Indiana in 1995. She lived in the Midwest until 2005, acquiring her bachelor’s and law degrees, and practised law for three years before realising that was not her calling. During her stint as a lawyer, she had taken an acting class and also done some plays in high school so she chose to pursue this path, as well as continue with her writing.

It’s been an exciting journey, filled with challenges and triumphs and Mirza’s unstoppable energy doesn’t show signs of slowing down.

A rising star on the indie film circuit is a Canadian-American-Pakistani who is grappling with issues of identity in theatre, television and film

She has also long been a passionate advocate for the marginalised, often people of colour, minorities and the LGBTQ community. When I met her last year, she told me she did not see social justice as separate from her work, that it was essential to her being. Of equal import is her effort to tell stories about (and by) communities that mainstream companies are not willing to develop. “Mainstream spaces don’t understand what to do with [our stories] unless they’re packaged a certain way,” she told me back then. This is why she writes, acts and now produces her pieces. She will not take on roles that depict Muslims or South Asians, for example, in a negative light. And when casting for an actor to play a Mexican woman, she was sure the filmmakers chose just that, not someone of another Hispanic-speaking country. Authenticity is important for her.

Mirza wrote the one-person theatre performance Me, My Mom and Sharmila which debuted in 2014 in Chicago and performed it on several college campuses across the US in 2015, as well as three cities in Pakistan. I watched the play in Chicago in October 2016 and spoke to several members of the audience after the performance, many of whom were South Asian or Muslim, who said they were delighted to see relatable depictions of themselves. Incidentally, Sharmila Tagore was once in the crowd at a performance in the US last year, an experience Mirza described as surreal.

She also acted in a web series Her Story which was nominated for an Emmy in 2016 in the first-time created category of original short form comedy. She’s also written and starred as some hilarious spoof characters such as Kam Kardashian, the long lost sister of the most famous celebrity-family on earth, and Ayesha Trump, the illegitimate Muslim daughter of the now US president. She uses humour to poke fun at pop culture and of course, politics. Trump created the Taj Mahal as a sign of his devotion to her mother, Ayesha Trump says in the video uploaded on YouTube.

Mirza is keen not to be labelled as any one identity — gender, sexuality, religious or national. She told me after her play, “I am all those things all the time.”

Mirza is currently working with co-writer Terrie Samundra on a screenplay version of Me, My Mom and Sharmila. The project was just named an SFFilm Rainin Fellowship recipient. She is also pitching a TV show based off a short film as well as working on a docu-series and several short films. She is even hoping to make a short film in Pakistan while she attends her brother’s wedding this month.

I caught up with her over an email exchange two weeks ago and as of that time Signature Move had already screened at 101 festivals round the world; it has 10 more festivals scheduled into 2018. It had its world premiered at SXSW in Austin in March this year, its international premiere at BFI Flare in London, its Canadian premiere at Inside Out in Toronto, and has screened all over Europe and Scandinavia and Asia, including as the opening night film at Kashish and then also at Jio MAMI, both in Mumbai. “Shabana Azmi and I both attended the screening at MAMI in October. We screened to a full house at the festival and got great feedback from audiences who’d never seen this kind of story before,” Mirza says.

At the moment, she has no plans of screening the movie in Pakistan though she would love to. “The film is a celebration of South Asian and Pakistani women,” she says. “It’s unfortunate the film festival scene is lost here in Pakistan. Film festivals are such integral parts of culture, community and conversation.”

I ask what it was like to watch Signature Move herself for the first time, in this case at SXSW. “It was surreal and beautiful and weird and lovely and terrifying and glorious all at the same time,” she replies. “SXSW is such an amazing festival and has been so supportive of wanting to share and celebrate this little independent film and was the perfect platform for our world premiere. People clapped and laughed and cried and shared stories of their own families.”

How does she respond to this being labelled simply as a gay love story. “I would say that is one part of the film. But, like any story, like any human being, that is just a sliver of what it is. To me, this a story about women, about love, about mothers and daughters, about self-love, about honesty, about complicated relationships, about cultures, about community, about connection, about coming together, about loneliness, about truth, about being more than one thing, about celebrating our differences, about human beings.”

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 10th, 2017