Drew Burnett Gregory is back at the Toronto International Film Festival for Autostraddle! Follow along with her coverage of all the LGBTQ+ films at the prestigious festival.
The Queen of My Dreams doesn’t feel like a debut feature.
Writer/director Fawzia Mirza has been a staple of queer film festivals for the last decade. Since writing, co-directing, and starring in the short with this same title, Mirza has written and/or directed more than half a dozen shorts and multiple web series. They also wrote and starred in the wonderful feature film Signature Move. With sharp humor and an attention to character, Mirza has already established themself as a filmmaker with a clear voice. Their official directorial debut steps into that voice with even more confidence — it’s as funny as it is melancholy, as entertaining as it is bold.
Jumping between three timelines, The Queen of My Dreams is about Azra, a queer Pakistani Canadian woman more concerned with acting school and her girlfriend than being her mother’s perfect Muslim daughter. After Azra’s father dies, she joins her mother in Pakistan where she’s confronted with the deep gulf in their relationship.
Here, the film finds its first narrative twist. Suddenly we’re back in 1969 with Azra’s mother, who once was just as much of an iconoclast as her daughter. These parallels are emphasized by Amrit Kaur playing both Azra and the younger version of Azra’s mother. This is just one of many creative decisions that borrows from and pays tribute to Bollywood films such as the oft-mentioned Aradhana starring Sharmila Tagore. “We’re not subtle,” Azra says when showing the film to her white girlfriend, who continues to question the “weirdness” of a similar casting decision.
There’s a place for realism in cinema, but it’s such a treat to witness Mirza pay tribute to the movies she loves by taking just as many creative swings. The cinematography, the production design, and the story structure all feel so precise in their ambition. It’s a fitting tribute to Bollywood and a fitting tribute to the expressionism of being queer.
The playful form of the film always feels motivated by the grounded characters. Kaur is exceptional in both her roles, and she’s surrounded by wonderful supporting performances — especially Nimra Bucha as the older version of her mother and Hamza Haq as both versions of her father. Style for style’s sake can be fun, but that is not what is happening here. Every fantasy sequence, every editing flourish, deepens the people on-screen and their relationships with each other.
Nearly an hour in, the film finds its third timeline. Focusing on a twelve-year-old Azra living in Nova Scotia, this interlude of sorts is the closest the film gets to a conventional queer coming-of-age movie. At first, I yearned to get back to our other storylines and Kaur’s performance, but as this section develops, its importance is made clear. If the first part of the film shows Azra and her mother at their most similar, here is where the divisions are born.
There is certainly not a lack of queer cinema about mommy issues, but few films have approached this key relationship with such a complicated tenderness. Before our mothers were moms, they were people. This film is about those people and about the tragedies and near-tragedies that forever shape a person or a place. It’s about finding our way back to the people, the places, they were before these moments, and rediscovering the love.
“Disclaimer: The plot is insane, it’s three hours long, and the old age makeup is not great, but it’s the best,” Azra tells her girlfriend before clicking play on Aradhana. At a swift 97 minutes with impressive makeup for an independent film, few, if any, of those disclaimers apply here. But what a treat to watch the work of a queer artist like Mirza who understands what makes movies the best. Not palatability, not safety, but the endless possibilities of cinema.