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Nilja Mu‘min talks directing first feature film ‘Jinn’

Nilja Mu‘min talks directing first feature film ‘Jinn’

Jinn is Nilja Mu‘min’s first feature film. Along with her mother, a teenage girl converts to Islam and is faced with many twists and turns about her self discovery. Mu’min talked to FF2 Media about how the film came about, the decision behind the title and advice to aspiring female filmmakers of color. The film is showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center during the Black Harvest Film Festival (which runs through August 30). For more info visit http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/blackharvest

Stephanie A. Taylor (SAT): How did Jinn come to fruition?

Nijla Mu’min (NM): The film was inspired by my own experience growing up in the Bay Area with my father who is an African-American Muslim. I was born into that community, it was very vibrant. There are so many different people with different personalities. My mother actually converted to Islam when she married my father. But, then they divorced. When they divorced, I was caught in between. My mother was more of a fluent spirituality and my father was very much a devout Muslim. So, as a teenager, I kind of would go back and forth between two different worlds and I had confusion. I had questions about my identity. All of that fell into the inspiration for Jinn. I wanted to just look at an identity with this Black girl who is trying to figure out who she is and who she wanted to be.

SAT: I know that Jinn is like a spiritual being that’s below angels, how did you come up with the title?

NM: The title came from thinking about my character and thinking about when she enters this new religious space. She’s talking about the Jinn and about how he’s called a shapeshifter the spirit that live in another world. That he can be evil or good and that has power over human beings that temps them into things they’re not supposed to do. As she’s coming into her own sexuality, and also wrestling with these feelings for Tahir  Kelvin Harrison Jr.), she wonders if there’s a parallel to the Jinn; who is a shapeshifter who is also dealing with temptation. There’s a lot about desire. There’s a lot about free will. Are you a bad person if you want to have sex? Should you feel this desire? Is it okay? All questions that all of us go through and think about. And this character is entering into this religious world. And at the same time she’s learning about something that she never associated with, which is a mythology. Another world.

SAT: You told me that your father is Muslim. Are you practicing?

NM: No, I’m not a practicing Muslim. But I definitely have love for it and the community that I come from. It’s beautiful to make a story that honors the people and community.

SAT: Why do you think Jinn is relevant for today?

It’s a story that many people can relate to beyond it being about Islam. Many people I’ve talked to have related to the story as a coming-of-age. So, I think that there’s a universality. And I think that right now in our climate with a heightened hatred towards people, there’s a lot of divisiveness. There’s a lot of cultural boundaries. If you can see a film that shows people that look like you, that love like you, that laugh, who have normal lives and they just happen to be Muslim I think that does something for us as a people. It connects us beyond the condition that we have. In our political climate it’s a story that is giving a different narrative and a different look into a world that is often diminished, evil and seen as terrorists and all of these labels that don’t fit.

SAT: Being a female filmmaker of color is still a rarity in the industry that is dominated but while males. How do you keep your motivation going?

NM: I actually don’t really think about that. It’s the reality. But it’s about creating things and always reading and watching movies and surrounding yourself who inspire and encourage you. I’m writing a lot. I’m interacting with people about my film. I’m attending screenings for my films. When I see people emotional and they’re able to connect with the film, that’s what gives me my positive reinforcement I need to grow everyday. I try not to think too much about the barriers. If I think too much about that, it’ll get into the way of my creativity. I’ve gotten a lot of rejection. I’ve had a lot of really unfortunate things happen to me. I just keep going. You have to believe in yourself. Maybe that sounds like a cliche, but that’s what I believe. Believe in what you’re doing and that you have a purpose on earth to do that.

SAT: That’s actually a really good answer. It’s not a cliche at all. It’s not heard enough actually.

NM: Yes. Believing in yourself is hard. It’s hard to go out on a limb and follow your dream.

SAT: You said you had a lot of unfortunate things happen to you in the process of your career. Can you go a little more deeply?

NM: It’s really hard being a filmmaker. You might work with someone who you think is a good person but they’re not. You find out that they’re not looking out for your best interest. I had a film that I thought was going to be my first feature film and the collaborator that I was working with turns out not to be a good person. It happens all of the time in filmmaking. Sometimes it can be really hard to build the right relationship to make a film. Because, your collaborators are sometimes people who’ll make or break the film. I’ve had experiences with being rejected, endlessly. Rejected from film festivals and opportunities that I thought I could be apart of. And that’s really tragic, when you feel you work so hard to get somewhere for your film, and you don’t get there. So that’s happened to me multiple times. I went through a lot to get here. I’ve been making films for over 10 years.

SAT: What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers? Particularly female filmmakers of color?

NM: I think the advice that I would give would be to keep working however you can. Even if you’re not able to make a feature film right now, you can write a script. Even if you’re not able to go to film school, there are some amazing  books and tutorials on how to write a feature screenplay. You can keep yourself working and sharpening your craft. If it’s through writing something or being a film critic and writing about film. We need more diverse voices out there in the film criticism world as well. Maybe it’s being a production assistant on someone’s movie and just learning what it takes to make a film by being a  PA. I did that as well early on in my career. All of these different things you can pull together could make you a stronger filmmaker. A lot of people you see in the limelight didn’t get there by walking off the set. They had to work to get there, by networking and helping other filmmakers. Keep yourself busy and sharpen your craft so when you do get the opportunity to make our film, or TV show, you're ready because you already put in the work to get there.

© Stephanie A. Taylor (8/14/18) FF2 Media

Photo credits: Bruce Francis Cole;  Confluential Films, Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, Morgan's Mark