The short film The Syed Family Xmas Eve Game Night follows Noor, a Muslim queer woman, and her experience with bringing her Puerto Rican partner home to meet her family for the first time.
When Noor's eldest sister unexpectedly arrives, chaos ensues and everyone's relationships are put to the test. The film explores "themes of sisterhood, belonging, and breaking the rules of tradition," according to its website.
Windy City Times spoke with writer and producer Kausar Mohammed and director Fawzia Mirza about representation in the film industry, the subversive qualities of romantic comedies and what it was like to work with an entirely queer BIPOC creative team.
The short film will be shown at the Chicago International Film Festival Oct 13.
Windy City Times: What inspired you to write this screenplay, Kausar?
Kausar Mohammed: I'm the baby of two older sisters and they're my life. I love them dearly. The inspiration for writing it was when I was introducing my partner to my sisters one holiday. It was the first time they were, in my adulthood, really meeting anyone that I was dating. My mind started spiraling of all the wild ways that things could go wrong. And that's where a lot of the moments, particularly the first scene of the short, were born.
Fawzia Mirza: So, Kauser brought me the script in September of 2020 and asked me if I would direct it. We'd actually met a few years earlier in L.A. when a mutual friend introduced us. I cast Kauser in another short comedy called I Know Her that I directed, which was my solo directorial debut. We had great creative and comedic collaborative energy and it really felt like we could work together again.
In 2020, I also made the decision to transition from Actor/Writer to Writer/Director exclusively. That kind of coincided with Kausar reaching out. As the queer, brown Muslim person, you're often the only one, so to have another queer, brown Muslim person reach out to ask you to direct and work on a project together is not that common.
WCT: The entire creative team behind this short film is made up of BIPOC queer people. What has it been like working with a team like that keeping in mind, like you said, that's not common?
KM: It was healing and beautiful and so restorative and in so many ways. We tried to be super-intentional in centering BIPOC and queer folk. That's something that came up often in conversations with producer Amalia Mesa-Gustin, who's my partner. The intention was just, "How do we just make sure this is a really safe space?" We wanted to be doing this work for each other and uplifting each other as we did it.
FM: It's so interesting to think about how to create work that's actually reflective of the communities we're a part of. In some ways, [having a BIPOC queer creative team] just makes sense. It's not necessarily easy, in the respect that not everybody in your community is necessarily in those roles yet or has the training or is as known as someone else might be. It takes great intentionality.
It's not just about inclusivity. I think inclusivity means you have to include people from the outside too, but instead, I think this is true collaboration. What you tend to see in this industry is competition. I mean, it's capitalism, right? So capitalism thrives on competition, not on collaboration. Behind the camera, in front of the camera and the post-production, this project has been striving to be something different.
WCT: What were some of the challenges that the pandemic brought to creating this short film?
KM: It definitely encouraged us to get creative, particularly in the casting. A conversation Fawzia and I had, that she brought her genius to, was just about how we could make the party feel full and chaotic even though we didn't necessarily want to have that many people there.
We also had to make sure we prioritized safety for everyone. Filming this February, this was the first time a lot of people were working after not having worked the entire pandemic. It was definitely a learning curve, but I think it was worth it.
WCT: Can you both speak about why it's important to make films that center BIPOC queer experiences and why this is something you're both passionate about?
FM: I often tell people that when I would watch TV, the two South Asian representations for me were Apu from The Simpsons and Mindy Kaling, and one of those two is an animated character voiced by a non-South Asian person. So, the representation was limited, to say the least. And then to also be someone who has part of your heart in so many different communities, there was just nothing.
Creation was a form of not just being seen, but a form of survival. In order to live and find a way through in life, you had to create a way on screen for you to be and live and thrive. Centering those characters is also a way of centering oneself and having hope for yourself to have a life that could be as big as anyone else's. That's been my mission since my first film and it continues to be my mission.
Comedy is often sort of put off to the kid's table as, "Well, it's funny, it's not really doing the work." But the thing is, it really is doing the work. Comedy is the only way we can do the work because laughter is the only way we can survive.
KM: The storytelling that we do in TV and film, the stories we create are all a part of reimagining better futures for our communities. Our communities' stories are traditionally told through trauma narratives on screen. So in telling these sorts of stories instead, it's bringing forth an aspirational world for our communities as well.
WCT: How does it feel to bring this movie to Chicago after premiering it in Canada?
FM: I'm excited. It's like coming home. There's a lot of fun folks I haven't seen in a long time that are going to come. Chicago is home to so many people who have historically been left out of the narrative, left out of filmmaking, left out of storytelling. The city is so diverse and so deeply segregated, and this little film is about bringing people together.
KM: I grew up in the Bay Area. I'm based in LA, but I'm actually working in Chicago right now and I've been here for a couple of months. It feels kind of like a homecoming to be able to share it with folks here. There's a really strong South Asian and Puerto Rican community here, so I'm excited to share this with them. It really feels special.
For more information about the short film: www.syedfamilymovie.com .
For more information about the Chicago International Film Festival: www.chicagofilmfestival.com/ .