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An interview with Nijla Mu'min, a filmmaker telling important stories

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I met Nijla Mu'min in fall 2014 when she visited a class I was taking at the California Institute of the Arts, where we both received graduate degrees. She showed her short film Deluge, which premiered at the New Voices in Black Cinema Film Festival in March 2014. The film has gone on to screen at the Black Star Film Festival and the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA), and is the recipient of a Princess Grace Cary Grant Award, among others. Deluge resonated with me not only because of its hypnotic visual aesthetics and riveting voiceover but also because the film has a tragic real-life inspiration: It’s based on the true story of a group of black teenagers who drowned because they’d never learned to swim. Deluge demonstrated for me the power of the magical realism genre in addressing contemporary issues of access and oppression.  

Since then, I've eagerly explored her other films, which include Two Bodies, about a young woman's struggle with sexuality and her relationship with her mother; Storm, a short meditation on the maladjustment of a black woman soldier who’s just returned home; and Dream, which was shot on location in Lake Los Angeles and focuses on the way fractures in her parents’ marriage transform a young girl’s perspective. In her essay "My Struggle Being a Black Woman Filmmaker Outside White Hollywood," Nijla engages the largely overlooked side of recent public debates about diversity in the movie industry and what the bottom line means for many filmmakers of color who work independently from Hollywood. Along with Yvonne Welbon's documentary Sisters in Cinema and the public interventions of Nijla’s inspiration, Ava DuVernay, that essay is one of the most illuminating glimpses into the multifaceted hustle of many black women filmmakers I’ve encountered. So instead of boycotting an event and wasting time writing blogs about why it's unfair,” she writes, “invest in us, the working filmmakers of color. For every blog and celebrity statement about the misfortune of the Academy, there's a filmmaker striving against all odds to make his or her movie or get into a writing room on a TV show. There's a woman writing a character we've never seen. There's the sounds of exciting, groundbreaking voices that will be silenced if we don't pay attention.”

 

She's written a new film called Jinn, which is a coming-of-age film about a character we’ve never seen: A black teenage girl who’s just converted to Islam. The Kickstarter campaign for that film launched this week. I talked with Nijla over email about her affection for the coming-of-age genre, Jinn’s backstory, and the visibility of Muslims in the media.

Blavity: Talk to me about Jinn. Where does the title come from?

Nijla Mu'min: Jinn is a coming-of-age dramedy about a carefree black girl, Summer, who is thrust into Islam when her mother converts, and begins a journey of self-discovery. Along the way, she meets a Muslim boy, Tahir, whose parents practice the religion in a freer fashion than Summer’s mother, and allow them ample freedom to hang out. However, with their freedom comes sexual feelings, which they are warned against, but which they cannot deny. In Islamic mythology, jinn are supernatural beings made of smokeless flame who occupy another world and have free will like human beings. They can be evil, good or a mix of both. Some jinn are said to tempt human beings to commit evil deeds.

B: I want to talk about the of voice-over narration in your films. The voiceover in your films, as in most films, convey information that characters' keep to themselves, or are used to provide context from a temporal or emotional distance. Terrence Malick and Kasi Lemmons have both expertly employed the technique in their films. I find your work to be in relation to the work of those directors. The intertextuality between your films suggests that the use of the voiceover is a part of your aesthetic approach. Can you talk about your decision to use the technique in several of your films, and do you plan to use it in Jinn?

NM: Every character I write has a very rich internal life, and they are often conflicted about issues related to family, identity, sexuality, romance or death. I’ve found that voiceover can be an extremely effective tool in exploring the internal conflict in my characters, and allowing it to inform our understanding of their actions in my films. I’m also a big fiction nerd. I grew up reading adult novels by Danzy Senna and J. California Cooper, amongst others. A lot of my films begin as short stories so the voiceovers come from those narratives. I love cinema that feels like a good novel, in that it can be epic, universal, and peppered with images that build a tapestry of meaning. Voiceover is definitely a part of Jinn, and is related to an important essay assignment in which Summer is asked by her English teacher to write about her identity and how she defines it. As she struggles to write in the midst of her religious conversion, we are let into her thoughts.

B: I think there's such continuity with your works and also films such as Sounder, The Learning Tree, Crooklyn, and Eve's Bayou. In press materials for Jinn, you state that you are a coming-of-age aficionado. What is it about these films that attract you, and how do you see your films in relationship to this tradition? What are some films that have influenced your work?

NM: Wow, thank you for the compliment. I love those films. I am fascinated by the formation of self and of identity during the adolescent years, and how these years greatly inform the people we become. Some of the most frightening, exciting, and enlightening things happened to me when I was a teenager. I laughed and cried with a group of close black female friends, I experienced heartbreak for the first time and laid on my bed numb from it, I realized I had more potential than I ever thought when I was admitted to Cal Berkeley after believing and being told for years that it wasn’t possible. I engaged in debates in my AP US History class about double consciousness and Jim Crow laws, and read novels that kept me awake at night thinking about how I could also make my words sing like the writers I so admired. I cried so many tears, I was confused and confident and awkward. Now, as a youth educator, I see some of my students going through the same things, just in a different cultural framework where social media and cell phones allow them to expertly craft identity and emotions.

B: If each of your previous films focused on a particular theme, what is Jinn's theme?

NM: Jinn’s theme is identity. It is a film about how one’s identity, fully-formed or in-process, leads them to interpret things in certain ways, including religion. I connect this to my father’s journey. Born Richard Scott, he came from a small town in Louisiana where black people had their own schools, doctors, and stores, and he moved to Oakland in the late 1960s/early '70s, where [he] was drawn to the Nation of Islam, as they symbolized black self-sufficiency, independence, and defiance to a white power structure. He would later convert to Orthodox, Sunni Islam and change his name to Saleem Mu’min. His journey and experiences influenced his conversion in the same way it does for the characters in my film. Summer and her mother Jade encounter Islam through different lenses — one out of a need for cultural belonging and enlightenment, and the other from a lens of curiosity, resistance and awe. Both lenses trigger a specific relationship that unfolds over the course of the narrative, that intertwines and often clashes with the other.

B: In your short films, I am struck by your conveyance of place, whether it be Dream's arid landscape or the lush water world shown in Deluge. What are the challenges of creating a film like Jinn, that refers to otherworldliness, especially as you work within the strictures of a budget you describe as being a "micro-budget?" Why do you set some of your films in these vibrant, unnamed locales? How does your view of place, as a director, differ in a narrative feature versus in a short film? Does this involve an adaptation of technique or scouting/planning?

NM: I think this also relates to my love of fiction and the creation of place and location that happens in those texts. It is often epic and functions in many ways as a character. Some of my favorite films share that with fiction — The Piano, Malcolm X, and A Prophet. One of my favorite short stories is "Brokeback Mountain" by Annie Proulx. Its attention to that frontier, Western space and the ways its characters wrestle with their lust can almost be felt. Ang Lee’s adaptation of it is masterful because he carries most of those location-specific details into the film, from dry tumbleweeds to lush mountains, it’s all there and it elevates the feelings of longing and denied love that the story illustrates. I aim to do that with my films and with my fiction and poetry. In my short film, Dream, I was especially concerned with building a very tangible physical world in which a 12-year-old girl longs for a family moment she might never have again. The emptiness of the desert was very real to me. In Jinn, I am also very intentional about how Los Angeles is represented, apart from the mainstream image we see of it. The Los Angeles that Summer — a 17-year-old black girl — navigates is one of pink sunsets, cramped pizzerias, abandoned buildings in Inglewood, Leimert Park, empty Metro trains, damp gyms and small dance studios.

B: In Jinn, the main character Summer is drawn to the jinn, or supernatural creatures who live in parallel worlds, as framed in the Islamic tradition. Many of your films feature black female adolescence at the center. Oftentimes the space of adolescence is viewed as the quintessential "other world." In fact, in a few of your films, the teen protagonists spend substantial reel time in their bedrooms, the ultimate private space. I feel like there's a connection between the parallel world of the jinn and the ways in which girlhood is deemed as insular, disconnected and both in and out of a logical realm as adults see it, in ways that even teen boyhood is not seen. Is there a connection, in your opinion? Is this popular reading of teen girls' intellectual and physical spaces necessary for a specialized approach, or is it isolating and condescending? Is there an analogue between the jinns' occupation of a parallel world with the work of black filmmakers position within Hollywood? How do you intend for Jinn to expand on this body of cinematic knowledge?

NM: In my film, Summer is drawn to the jinn mythology partly because she is a shapeshifter. She feels she is several bodies in one. She enjoys switching between different looks, personas and identities and documenting them on Instagram and Tumblr. Similarly, the jinn can take on different forms — as animals, snakes, women and men. Summer’s black teenage girlhood is a distinct world all its own, and as her mother’s conversion consumes her, Summer’s internal space becomes that much more separate. Her desires and frustrations, while strong, are unseen by many.

The film is also concerned with this idea of free will, which is something that human beings and jinn exercise. However, it is believed by some that jinn have the capacity to influence human beings to do evil deeds. As Summer and Tahir go deeper into their friendship, their feelings for each other and the freedom they are given present them with a choice that, while looked down upon by many, is theirs to make. I am interested in teen sexuality and temptation as an extension of free will.

B: Your visual palette and inspirations for Jinn range from black women with afros, Beyoncé dancing, Muslim women rocking hijabs, the singer SZA and even churros. How did you come up with this collection of visual influences?

NM: I envisioned all of the distinct ways the elements of my identity converge and clash. I learned a lot about sexuality from the Lil’ Kim’s song “Not Tonight,” and the film Eve’s Bayou. I’m a child of black popular culture, of Islam, and of black girl magic before there was a term for it. I went on a college tour road trip with my best friends in high school and we cried while listening to Lauryn Hill’s Unplugged album, then discussed its relevance to our lives as 16-year-olds. We were so deep. I love the inconsistencies and complexities of black girl identity, and I wanted to capture that. I also love churros.

B: You've worked with Ava DuVernay as a production assistant, and you appeared in one of her commercial projects, "Say Yes," an ad for Fashion Fair cosmetics. When I studied with Tisa Bryant at CalArts, she suggested that DuVernay's commercial work, which includes ads for Apple, Miu Miu and Fashion Fair, were acts of syncretism, in which these advertisements were being deployed for subversive means, that is, to depict rich depictions of black sociality. As a black, woman, Muslim filmmaker (among your other identities), do you find yourself having to layer your films in coded ways so that your work will be received by larger audiences?

NM: I think a large part of Jinn’s appeal for larger audiences is that it’s a funny, fresh, serious film about Islam. It does not point fingers and does not preach. And I think the fact that the main character does not begin the film as a Muslim will allow many people who are not Muslim to experience the religion through her. In the same way that DuVernay intentionally brings audiences into spaces of black female bonding, warmth and familiarity, I am also encouraging a certain movement toward Muslim laughter, Muslim love and Muslim beauty that we just don’t see in mainstream images. But I am not coating those images with “This is a message!” I just let my images live and work through the mind and body.

B: You write that your films "humanize those who are routinely dehumanized." Can you elaborate on that statement? Could you describe or define those you allude to in that statement?

NM: I’ve written scripts about black mothers, a black woman porn star trying to reunite with her mother, a biracial mother who accidentally runs over a child on her way home from work, a mother battling breast cancer on the eve of her daughter’s 16th birthday, a black sister who loses her brother to a police officer’s gun and falls in love with the man who witnessed it, and black teens trying to find themselves.

B: I grew up in West Philly, where there is a large population of black Muslims. Several members of my family are black Muslims. Outside of films such as Moozlum, and the classic Malcolm X, as well as a character in Night Catches Us, I don't often see images of black Muslims in film or on TV, and when I do, they were narrowly conceived in the vein of black conspiracy theorists or cartoonishly depicted as one-dimensional bean pie hawkers. Also, there's a frequent conflation between the Nation of Islam and black Sunni Muslims. In your opinion, why don't you think these communities are covered in mass media, even by other black filmmakers, when there are large populations of black Muslims in metropolitan cities throughout the U.S.?

NM: “One-dimensional bean pie hawkers!” That is hilarious! Can I use that?

It’s interesting, but I actually set up a google alert for 'Islam' so I could receive relevant news about the religion in my email inbox, and the headlines are so dismal, and scary even. There’s little humanity in those headlines, which are about repressed Muslim women’s sexuality, ISIS threats, and the like. I juxtapose those very scary mass-produced headlines about Islam with a recent experience I had seeing my Muslim cousin Juma, his wife and their three young sons over winter break. Juma was so very in love with his wife. I could see it in the way they looked at one another, in the warm laughter and jokes they shared and the way they flirted with one another as if they’d just met. It was heart-warming to see them and to play with their sons, one of which had a deep interest in filmmaking. We took selfies and they beamed with a youthful vibrancy and hope that I can still feel. These are the Muslims that I know and grew up around, and their images and stories are so different than the ones being pumped into many people’s minds.

I think the lack of representations of black Muslims comes from misinformation and from an enduring fascination some people have with seeing people as “the other” —Muslims, people of color, LGBTQ folks and anyone who doesn’t fit neatly into the Eurocentric, Christian values this country was founded on.

I also think that the increased stigma and hatred that Muslims face in the time of Donald Trump, ISIS and Charlie Hebdo, makes it complicated to tell a 'complicated' story about Muslims. Many within the Muslim community might not want to step out and portray a Muslim character who is struggling with their faith, who is tempted to have sex or who lies, because those things are 'wrong,' per se, but they are also what makes us human, and as a storyteller and filmmaker, I am interested in exploring humanity in unlimited ways — not to exploit or wrangle Islamic identity for my own purposes, but to humanize and connect with a religion that helped make me who I am today.

B: What would you say to viewers who'd say that a woman using her film to provide depth to Islamic experiences is inherently a contradiction of the religion's terms?

NM: The Qur’an is full of depth. It is full of surahs about the complexities of life and how to face them.

When I was growing up, my father told me that Muslims weren’t allowed to date and that if I wanted to meet up with a boy, I had to be chaperoned. Meanwhile, my mother let me hang out with my friend Ryan and get on the BART train to meet him. I embody a dual perspective, and that’s always how I’ve entered these conversations. The only way I know how to make art is to humanize my subjects, and humanization comes from a recognition of flaws, contradictions and complexity.

B: What did you hope to achieve by writing "My Struggle Being a Black Woman Filmmaker Outside White Hollywood"?

NP: I wanted to bring attention to the everyday realities of being a working filmmaker of color outside of the studio system. I really appreciated a lot of the dialogue that April Reign's #OscarSoWhite spurred, but I think at some point, the dialogue became some type of publicity stunt, or a racy question to ask celebrities, when it should've been a step in the direction of providing a space for the people who are most affected by it — the filmmakers. I think we sometimes have a tendency to take a top-down approach to issues, especially related to the film industry. The Oscars are in many ways the end of the chain when it comes to filmmaking — lack of access, resources and opportunities underscore the disparities we see in this industry. Those are the root problems. I was interested in exploring that, as a filmmaker. The piece garnered a massive response. It was one of the top articles on VICE and people shared it all over social media. Many filmmakers reached out to me, sharing their projects and their stories. 

B: What can people do to make sure films like Jinn get made?

Support them, screen them in their schools, homes and organizations. Go see them when they are in theaters. Take their families and friends. 

In relation to our campaign, people can spread the word to their family, friends, and communities through social media and word of mouth. One tweet or Facebook post goes a long way. One email. They can also contribute any amount. It's about building community and showing that we want to see these stories because they are our stories.


Nijla Mu'min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. Her short films have screened at festivals across the country, including the Pan African Film Festival and Outfest. She has written for Shadow & Act, Bitch Media, The Los Angeles Times, and Vice. She is the recipient of the 2012 Princess Grace Foundation- Cary Grant Award for her film, Deluge. Recently, she was one of 10 writers selected for the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Intensive. She was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Screenplay at the 2014 Urbanworld Film Festival, for her script Noor.

Niela Orr is one of BuzzFeed’s first Emerging Writer Fellows. Her work has appeared in The Believer, The Baffler, Salon, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. She’s currently working on a book about the convergence of black pop culture and visual art. She lives and works in New York City.



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