In Noor & Layla, Nicole Nwokolo and Sahar B. Agustin-Maleki portray a relationship between two queer women —in chapters marked by the five prayers of Islam.
The innovative short film from director Fawzia Mirza (Signature Move) and produced by Andria Wilson Mirza is told in reverse chronological order and is timed to the songs from a Muslim alarm clock. But in addition to its format, Noor & Layla is a breakthrough depiction of a love that is rarely seen in mainstream media. So no wonder it is premiering at this weekend's Outfest Fusion, a film festival dedicated to showcasing the stories of LGBTQ+ people of color.
Below, Mirza shares a clip from and discusses Noor & Layla, which celebrates how "queer Muslim love is beautiful." Learn more about how to screen it and other films at Outfest.org.
The Advocate: What inspired Noor & Layla?
Fawzia Mirza: Noor & Layla is about reclaiming rituals and is inspired by my quest to connect my Muslim and South Asian realities with my queer identity. It's inspired by moments I shared with my wife, Andria Wilson Mirza, sheltering in place in Toronto during the month of Ramadan in 2020. We'd gotten married in a very private, small, wedding on February 2, 2020, just before the pandemic hit (incidentally, married and witnessed by our executive producers Chani Nicholas and Sonya Passi). And so our first Ramadan together as wives was isolated and away from community. But during that time, we shared many rituals together, Ramadan rituals and also marriage rituals that we didn't get to have at our wedding. It reminded me the importance of celebrating our love and triumphs in ways that matter to us, regardless of what our families or communities may think. It got me thinking, how can we as queer people reclaim rituals from our faith and culture and family, and create our own traditions?
The film is presented in short chapters and told in reverse chronological order. Why did you want to tell their story in this unconventional format?
I wanted to make a short film about queer Muslim love, marked by the five calls to prayer. Yes, Fajr is the first prayer of the day, and Isha is the last… But what really is the beginning or the end of the day? And what marks the beginning or the end of a relationship? Relationships are collections of moments, and we can't always remember how we got to the moment we're in. We don't always remember things in the order they happened. I love subverting expectations and exploring the ways that a story can unfold.
An alarm clock time for prayer plays a pivotal role in each chapter. Tell us about your decision to include this device, and how its role changes throughout the story.
I (and probably every Muslim kid I know) grew up with some sort of Muslim alarm clock on the mantle, or at the side of the bed. The azhan, the call to prayer, is as familiar to us as anything on the Billboard 100. That sound, traditionally, means, it's time to pray. But I'm not just interested in prayer at prayer time, I'm interested in all the other things that also happen when that azhan goes off. I loved the idea of using Muslim markers of prayer to mark other moments in our lives, mundane or exciting. I wanted to normalize the sound of the azhan and introduce it in a woman's voice (it's usually male), as a sound and a soundtrack in our everyday lives.
Depictions of interracial queer Muslim couples are rare in media. What was the significance to you of bringing this representation to the screen?
The two actors who portray Noor and Layla, Nicole Nwokolo and Sahar B. Agustin-Maleki, are great performers who had incredible chemistry. Even in the audition, they couldn't stop giggling with each other! Casting actors who could portray a queer Muslim couple with chemistry was a top priority. I wanted everyone to love them and their love. My work centers voices of color, queer voices, Muslim voices, women's voices. To me, this interracial relationship is a normal reflection of the community around me. That's why I wanted to world premiere the film at Outfest Fusion, a queer film festival that centers people of color. We should be at the center.
What do you hope is the takeaway for viewers?
Queer Muslim love is beautiful. Muslims are not a monolith; we come in all forms and we practice in myriad ways. We are multitudes.
What can your characters teach us about love?
There's power in loving and there's power in remembering why you loved or love someone. Those moments of falling in love, of connection, delicious puns, those moments aren't just memory, they're fuel. Those moments are deeply magical, spiritual, divine. True love, no matter how many times you experience it, is about balance. Noor is Arabic for light and Layla is Arabic for night. Noor and Layla's love is about balance.
Watch the exclusive clip of Noor & Layla below. And catch the full short at Outfest Fusion.
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