Meet Nijla Mu'min: Director of SXSW award-winning film "Jinn"
- 30 March 2018
- Add to Bookmarks
In March, writer-director Nijla Mu’min not only premiered her debut feature film “Jinn” at SXSW to excited crowds, but also came home with the jury prize for writing. A film four years in the making, it tells the story of 17-year old Summer (Zoe Renee) whose life is turned upside down when her mother Jade (Simone Missick) suddenly converts to Islam, thereby forcing Summer to come to terms with her own identity. Along the way, she meets Tahir (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a fellow Muslim, and must reconcile Islamic beliefs with her growing desires.
Inspired by her upbringing with a Muslim father and a mother who converted to Islam, Nijla Mu’min weaved in her experiences inside the mosque as well as growing up in California to create a startling coming-of-age film which explores what it’s like to be a young black Muslim woman today.
Muslim Girl: In your film, the hijab is significant. Jade begins to wear it and Summer experiments with it. Today, hijab has a loaded meaning in society – it’s politicized, incites hate crimes, and also symbolizes freedom of religion. What does hijab mean to you and what does it signify in your story?
Nijla Mu’min: From a young age, I saw hijab as a symbol of beauty. When I was growing up, I’d go to the masjid with my father and siblings and after the khutbah and salat, my father would sell scarves outside of the masjid, along with other Muslim vendors selling bean pies, newspapers, jewelry, and books. There were many different colors and textures of scarves – rayon, silk, cotton, magenta, purple, ocean blue, leopard print, and zebra. My father would hold the scarves out and they billowed in the air for passing women to purchase. I loved watching women wrap their faces in the scarves, look into his mirror, and take one home. My father would sometimes give me scarves as gifts, and I still have them.
WHEN WOMEN ARE GIVEN THE AGENCY TO CHOOSE HOW THEY WILL PRACTICE AND PROCLAIM THEIR FAITH, WE ARE ALL BETTER FOR IT.
In the African American Muslim community I come from, some Muslim women wore scarves and some didn’t. When they did, the hijab was an extension of their faith, of their beauty, their modesty, their determination, and personality. They chose to wear it. It was never a part of something that silenced them, that made them voiceless or repressed. There were Muslim women around me who laughed hard and full, danced, and sang with their hijab wrapped tight. In my film, I was very intentional about framing the hijab as normal, as beautiful, and as freeing for some of the characters who wear it. The main character, Summer, loves wearing scarves, but also loves wearing her natural, kinky hair out. She loves spraying it with pink and silver dye. She doesn’t want to be forced to wear a scarf, or to be any one way. Both the scarf and the hair dye are extensions of her personality and freedom. I believe this is where tensions arise. When women are given the agency to choose how they will practice and proclaim their faith, we are all better for it. Can there be a space for black girls like this in our discussions of hijab? We have this image in Western culture of the oppressed Muslim woman, and my film is not about that. Scarves, hijab, and black women’s varying hairstyles are a part of the texture and complexity of the world I created.
MG: You said when using the word “Jinn” as the title of your film, “It’s a parallel for what Summer is feeling,” which is specifically desire. Do you believe in jinns? What is your own experience with jinns and how did that influence your story?
NM: Yes, I believe in jinns and angels. I think what fascinates me most about jinns, in relation to my story, is the element of free will- that both jinn and humans have free will to do good or evil, but that jinns have the ability to tempt, possess and influence people. I think the lines become blurred when we talk about desire and temptation, and specifically about pure desire, and the need for human connection. We see the teen and adult characters in my film wrestling with their relationships to physical desire, with their free will to act on these desires, and how that will affect their spiritual, religious lives, their families, and their identities, especially in a society that pushes for physicality and touch.
Tahir and Summer in “Jinn.” Courtesy of Sweet Potato Pie/Morgan’s Mark Productions/via Muslim Girl
MG: You’ve received grants from the Islamic Scholarship Fund (ISF), Sundance and more. What was your experience working with these organizations?
NM: It was amazing. If it weren’t for their support, we wouldn’t have been able to make this film. As independent filmmakers of color telling a story that many wouldn’t consider “mainstream” or “high concept,” we had to take varying routes to financing a film, and one of those routes was through granting organizations. The Islamic Scholarship Fund has been following my work for years, and saw a need for this story early on. Filmmakers Lexi Alexander and Iman Zawahry, who lead the film grant program at ISF, have been advocates of this film since day one and I am so grateful to them. The Sundance Institute was one of the first organizations to support the film, inviting us to their Sundance Women’s Financing Intensive, and I also took part in their Music and Sound Design Lab at Skywalker Ranch which was a total blast. This is where I met the composer for the film. The San Francisco Film Society (SFFILM) also provided post-production funds at a time when we had no money to finish the film. I have nothing but gratitude for these organizations.