Signature Move is an intercultural lesbian wrestling rom-com — and what’s not to love about that? — but it’s also a movie that makes a political statement without being overtly political.
When the film was in post-production in the fall of 2016, “we optimistically believed we would be telling this story in the time of the first female president,” says director Jennifer Reeder.
Well, things didn’t quite turn out that way. When the results were in, Reeder says, “it was deflating for about 90 seconds, but then we realized we had this amazing film,” which the director calls a “secret weapon” in the resistance to Donald Trump.
Signature Move, a film festival favorite that begins a Los Angeles theatrical run today and soon will be available via Amazon Prime and video on demand, features many populations Trump has tried to marginalize — women, LGBT people, Muslims, immigrants, and Mexican-Americans.
“It’s about these deeply intersectional people,” says co-writer and star Fawzia Mirza. “It’s also meant to be deeply normalizing and deeply relatable.”
Mirza, who wrote the screenplay with Lisa Donato, plays Zaynab, a Chicago-based Pakistani-American immigration lawyer who wrestles for exercise and “existential reasons — immigration and codependency,” as the character says in the film, with one of her clients as trainer. She shares a home with her widowed mother, Parveen (played by Bollywood legend Shabana Azmi), a traditional Muslim who spends her days watching Pakistani soap operas on television and peering through binoculars out the window in search of a suitable husband for Zaynab.
Zaynab doesn’t want a husband — she’s a lesbian. She’s not exactly out to her mother, which becomes an issue with her new girlfriend, Alma (Sari Sanchez), an exuberant bookstore owner who’s totally out to her Mexican-American family, including her mother, Rosa (Charin Alvarez), a former competitive wrestler.
In its sweet, funny, romantic way, the film explores how coming — and being — out differs from culture to culture and, indeed, from family to family, in addition to showing cross-cultural commonalities. It also portrays empowered women — the cast is largely female — and the vibrant South Asian and Mexican communities of Chicago, where it was filmed.
The concept of the dramatic coming-out monologue is very Western, says Mirza, adding that in a lot of families in any culture, there isn’t necessarily one big coming-out moment. “Some people take their time and come out slowly,” she says, and everyone has their own path. She seeks tot make the point, she says, that there isn’t a single correct way to be gay.
Mirza has much in common with Zaynab, but the film is not autobiographical, “but it’s definitely inspired by my real life,” she says. “I’m a Pakistani Muslim lesbian who fell in love with a Mexican-American woman in the city of Chicago one beautiful summer.” The woman remains one of her best friends, says Mirza, who’s also a former lawyer.
But for one thing, she had never wrestled, she says. The wrestling in the film, complete with luchador masks, was inspired by her appearance on a Chicago late-night comedy show alongside a female pro wrestler, who performed her signature move — the finishing move of the match — on the show’s host. “It was so fascinating, and I loved seeing a strong, powerful woman take down this guy,” she says. Wrestling was also a way to create a connection between Zaynab and Alma, she notes.
And the film portrays many strong, powerful women, mainly women of color. Not least among them is Parveen; Mirza notes that Signature Move is not only a rom-com but a “mom-com.”
“I know I’m deeply impacted by my mother, and I think that’s something really beautiful to share,” she says. Likewise beautiful, she says, was working with Azmi, a veteran of more than 150 films, including the groundbreaking 1996 lesbian romance Fire, in addition to extensive theater and activist work.
“Working with Shabana, the Indian Meryl Streep, was exactly what you think it would be — a dream come true,” Mirza says. “She’s the kind of artist that I hope to continue to be. She did this tiny little indie film because she believed the story had to be told.”
“Shabana’s instincts are just extraordinary,” adds Reeder, noting that Azmi and Mirza would sometimes play off each other and come up with improvised scenes, some of which made it into the film.
The Signature Move set was full of diverse and talented people, Reeder says, and Azmi remarked that it was the first time she’d been on a set with so many women. The production team was also careful to assure that the movie was cast with ethnically appropriate actors and that it was culturally respectful and authentic. Some of the dialogue is in Urdu, with subtitles, and the movie features many shots of Chicago’s South Asian and Mexican neighborhoods.
And the little indie film has done well. It won the Grand Jury Prize last year at Los Angeles’s Outfest, and it has been honored at many other festivals, where it’s played to “packed houses of rowdy women ready for a lesbian wrestling rom-com,” Reeder says. It’s had theatrical runs in Chicago and New York before coming to L.A.
Mirza and Reeder, both making their feature film debuts with Signature Move, say they hope audiences see themselves in the movie, and the feedback indicates that this is the case. Mirza says many people have told her they’ve never seen themselves on the screen until viewing Signature Move, while people from a variety of cultures all over the world have found the film entertaining and relatable..
“That is the reality of the world we’re living in,” she says. While much progress has been made, “we have a long way to go before we actually, truly represent people.”
And representation is political in itself. “We didn’t set out to make a political film but just by virtue of portraying these characters, it became politicized,” Mirza says. She intends to continue providing such representation: “I believe in art as activism.”
Signature Move opens today at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills. It will be available via video on demand (iTunes, Amazon Instant, and GooglePlay) beginning Tuesday and Amazon Prime as of Thursday. Visti the website here and watch the trailer below.