How making a feel-good queer and Muslim comedy reminded Fawzia Mirza of what's really important
As she prepared to shoot The Syed Family Xmas Eve Game Night, her wife was diagnosed with cervical cancer
Cutaways is a personal essay series by Canadian filmmakers, asking them to tell the story of how their film was made. This TIFF edition by Fawzia Mirza focuses on her film The Syed Family Xmas Eve Game Night, which follows a queer Muslim woman who brings her new partner to her family's holiday festivities.
In the fall of 2020, I got an email from writer/actor Kausar Mohammed. She told me she had a script — a feel-good queer, Muslim, holiday comedy loosely inspired by her life. Would I direct? Collaborating with another queer, Muslim, Brown artist on a film centering us? Sounded like a Christmas miracle to me!
Kausar and I had our friend meet-cute through a mutual friend, leading us to work together in my solo directorial debut I Know Her, which had its world premiere at Outfest in LA in 2019. The film is a three-minute short comedy consisting of one shot and one joke where two women learn they have a little too much in common. I acted/directed/wrote, cast Kausar in the other role and hired Lisa Tom as the DP/gaffer/editor. Thanks to Kausar's comedy brilliance, this tiny film screened at over 80 film festivals around the world, including in competition on CBC's Short Film Face Off, and continues to screen. It was apparent to me that Kausar and I had great comedy chemistry.
Things to know about me: I'm a queer, Muslim, Pakistani, Indian, Canadian former lawyer turned actor/writer/director. And I love collaboration. In the fall of 2020, I'd been isolating with my wife in Toronto for six months during the pandemic lockdown. I'd just written and directed my first all-Canadian short, Noor & Layla, in association with CBC, Fae Pictures and a company started by my wife and I, Baby Daal Productions — and it looked like COVID was going to clear enough to create space for us to make tiny indie movies again in January 2021.
So Kausar asked me to come back to LA and direct her first short film. Her partner Amalia Mesa-Gustin would produce; they were funded through Amalia's nonprofit Speak Out Films. We would make this an American-Canadian production, and we'd shoot in January 2021.
I said yes and asked her if she would be open to workshopping the script. My experience had been writing and directing, and to find my way into someone else's script as a director, I wanted to dig into the comedy and storytelling alongside Kausar. This was a unique experience for both of us. There we were: a queer South Asian Muslim woman writer/actor working on her script with a queer South Asian Muslim woman director. We're so used to being singular in the spaces we work. And while we are far from being the same, we bring a shared sense of value and mission to the work. We want to centre stories on queer Muslims of colour. We want to work in this industry in a way that feels uplifting rather than degrading, inclusive rather than exclusive, and can ultimately be an actual reflection of the spectrum of our community.
We did a table read and started to get into casting. Things were shaping up for a January shoot. Then my wife got sick. She had an abnormal pap in September and was diagnosed with cervical cancer in October. At this point, of course, we were already in the midst of a global pandemic, and a social and racial revolution.
I didn't tell Kausar or Amalia right away; my wife wanted to keep things private as she navigated what this diagnosis meant. Her surgery was scheduled for December 3. I made it my job to support my wife. And one of the ways I supported myself during that time was to work on projects that gave me hope, which included working with Kausar and Amalia on this film. I kept coming back to the script as a way to recharge. My goal with this project was to make comedy that felt cinematic, focusing on a queer Muslim Brown woman and illustrating the joy and hope that exist in the lives of our families and community.
It was in November, as the chaos of the American elections continued to unfold, that I finally shared the news about my wife with my collaborators. They received the news with love and grace, and with understanding and compassion. In December, as we geared up to shoot in January 2021, I realized and told them that I couldn't leave my wife yet. She needed my help and the earliest I could leave Toronto was mid-February. COVID was raging in LA, again. I told them that if they wanted to move forward with a different director, they should and I would understand. But they said that everything happens for a reason, there was no one else, and that I was the one to direct this.
We moved filming to February, which turned out to be an incredible two-day and night shoot. It was DP'd by the brilliant Patrick Ouziel (Marvin's Never Had Coffee Before, Revenge Tour, Flex), production designed by the unbelievable Gerin Del Carmin, shot at the home of Nitasha Sawhney, edited by Toronto's Shelley Therrien (who also edited Noor & Layla), and featured the art of Taz Ahmed and wardrobe by Babu the Painter/Bakwaas.
As The Syed Family Xmas Eve Game Night is about to world premiere at TIFF, I'm reminded of the importance of loving the work you are making. Make it for you, and for your values. Make it with love, and make it with people you love. Make art from a place of intense honesty and the best will come. Not everyone will understand you or your work or why this film is important. But that's okay. As a queer Muslim, I've gotten used to that.
For me, this film is an aspirational example — in terms of content and collaboration — that it is possible to make work that centres people who have historically been marginalized and excluded. It is possible to focus on those with "complex" identities in a simple, feel-good narrative. The fact that this film is world premiering at one of the greatest global stages, and that it has already received interest from producers, distributors and production companies, is proof that making what you love, making work authentic to you, matters — and that it's possible to make a feel-good film that actually feels good through every step of the process.
The Syed Family Xmas Eve Game Night is part of the Short Cuts Programme at the Toronto International Film Festival.