Meet Nijla Mu'min: Director of SXSW award-winning film "Jinn"

Culture & Entertainment

MAHIN IBRAHIM

Nijla Mu’min on set of “Jinn.” Courtesy of Sweet Potato Pie/Morgan’s Mark Productions/via Muslim Girl 

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 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.

MG: Zarqa Nawaz, creator of the Canadian TV show “Little Mosque on the Prairie” said when her show first came out in 2007, she got pushback from the Muslim community, some of whom went so far as to ban her from the mosque. Because Islamophobia was on the rise post-9/11, they were worried her show could hurt the community further. Writer-director Lena Khan talked about how hard it was to fundraise for her 2017 film “The Tiger Hunter” from some of the Muslim community who didn’t quite get why they should support a film in lieu of a non-profit. To be clear, this was not all but some of the Muslim community. What was your experience with the Muslim community when fundraising and making the film? How about its reception?

NM: The Muslim community was very supportive in the fundraising and making of this film. I cannot speak for all Muslims, but during our Kickstarter campaign for the film, I received several messages each day from Muslim people, expressing how excited they were for this story. Many Muslim people contributed to that campaign as well. The Imam from the masjid that I grew up attending, supported and helped spread the word about the film to that community. During the world premiere of the film at SXSW, some Muslims attended and were moved by the film. A woman came up to me after the premiere, and expressed she’d never seen herself represented in that way onscreen. Another Muslim man expressed he’d never seen the shahada recited in that way, in a film. A trailer that we released went viral, and many Muslims shared and engaged with it. I cannot anticipate how all Muslims will receive the film, but I know in my heart, I am coming from a real and sincere place as a black woman from a Muslim community.

WE NEED TO BE INCLUSIVE WHEN WE ENVISION WHAT A MUSLIM IS. 

I think there’s a healthy and justifiable concern that some Muslims have about the way the community is represented, especially in light of the hateful rhetoric and policies from the White House and past mainstream media representations that have framed Muslims as either angry terrorists or all-loving, altruistic saints. There’s a problem with both of these portrayals, and as an artist and filmmaker, I am not interested in either. We need more complicated images of people who are Muslim. We need to be inclusive when we envision what a Muslim is. We need to see some Black Muslims who are not a part of the Nation of Islam, and Muslim teenagers who are wrestling with the pressures of growing up in America, with pop culture, sexuality and belonging, and family. These are people I know. We cannot be afraid to explore our humanity.

MG: Society often takes a culture and exoticizes it to the point of labeling it as “cool,” which we’ve seen with African American culture – especially in the arts. Do you see this happening with Muslim culture?

NM: I do see this happening in some ways to Muslim culture, but I see a lot of Muslims participating in efforts to make Islam, or their particular expression of it, appear cool and accessible, and I am not sure yet if this is a problem, or will become one. There’s a whole world of Muslim women on Instagram and Twitter who devote their days to taking glamour photos of themselves in hijab. These women are stunningly beautiful, their makeup and eyebrows are whipped, and their scarves and wraps are immaculate. They get hundreds or thousands of “likes” on each photo or video. They are making a religion, or style of dress, that has historically been seen as repressive or drab, into something that is cool, fashionable, and beautiful. Is that a problem?

I actually think it’s reversing our ideas of what a Muslim woman is. Is this considered exotification if Muslims are doing it, and if they are controlling the images of themselves? How has social media influenced this type of cultural, religious display of beauty and vanity, when tied to Islam? These are all questions I pondered and explored when writing “Jinn,” and developing a particular story element that deals with Summer’s need to assert her identity and sexuality, and also fit in at school. I am not sure what the answers are, but this is a fascinating area to explore further.

MG: Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Founding Director of the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg said, “For the last decade, female directors of color have been nearly invisible in the director’s chair. When Hollywood thinks female director, they think ‘white woman.’ ” Between 2007 and 2017, four black women and one Muslim women have directed top-grossing films. When you hear that, how does that impact the way you plan your own career path?

NM: From the beginning of my filmmaking career, I’ve known that I would have to work five times as hard as my white male peers in order to be successful in this field. While my talent and skills are abundant, it is really my hard work that has spurred by success. I know I am making movies and telling stories for people who look like me, and I don’t allow anything or anyone to stop me from making this content. I’ve found ways to maneuver an industry that, historically, has been hostile and unwilling to include me. I do this through low or no-budget filmmaking, through community-building, through networking, through working with organizations and film festivals that cater to content for people of color and women, and through writing my own stories into existence.

MG: Who are your directorial influences and what have they taught you about directing?

NM: I have so many influences. A few of them include Gina Prince-Bythewood, Ryan Coogler, Andrea Arnold, Spike Lee, Jacques Audiard, Ava DuVernay, Fatih Akin, Julie Dash, and Jane Campion. Each of these directors are masters at what I like to call “world-building” in cinema. Their films are chock full of color, textures, light, exciting costume choices, locations, music, performances, and emotional sensations that are so carefully and methodically thought-out. These directors invite the audience into a total world, and leave us wanting more. They’ve taught me so much about intentionality as a director, and about the choices we make to render the world we see in our minds.

MG: In all your interviews for “Jinn” thus far, what is one question you wish someone had asked you and what is your answer to that?

NM: I really hope that in future conversations and interviews about the film, people start to dig into the many threads of the story, that go beyond representation. While I think it’s important to discuss the ways that the film represents people who are rarely seen in movies, it is equally important to discuss the ways the Black girl characters are wrestling with, and negotiating their sexuality in a society where slut-shaming, violence, and silence envelops them, how cultural signifiers like bean pies and scarves form a tapestry of meaning for various characters in the film, or how complex the bonds between mothers and daughters can be. I also hope people dig deeper into the visual design of the film, and how color, light, and movement render meaning. My DP Bruce Francis Cole and I worked hard so that the visual world was full of meaning and life.

Before “Jinn,” Mu’min’s short film “Dream” was broadcast online by Issa Rae Productions. In 2017, she was selected as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. Check out the official website and trailer for “Jinn” below, and follow the film on social media for more news.

 
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