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BGN Interview: Filmmaker Nijla Mu’min

BGN Interview: Filmmaker Nijla Mu’min

The feature film Jinn, made its debut this week at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival and is a gem of a film that explores the Black Muslim experience in a coming of age setting with a female protagonist at the center of the story.  Director Nijla Mu’min, drew from her own experiences and created a story that deserved a voice.  She sat down and chatted with BGN about how she came up with the film’s title and how Jinn will resonate with audiences.

Tell us the story behind using the word ‘Jinn’ as the title of the film, because I know in the Muslim community, that it kind of means something probably different than what the film represents, but I would like for you to share that with us. And is the word ‘Jinn’ itself — a signal that you’re using to send to the Muslim community?

Nijla Mumin: I used that word because when I was crafting my character as Summer, I started to kind of think about what she would be drawn to, what would she be fascinated by, what would she be interested in as she was entering this community and learning about Islam. And I think the jinn mythology is something that a lot of people don’t know about it, and when you really start reading about it, you [notice] there’s a lot of texture to it, you know? These are spiritual beings, they live in another world, they have free will, but they’re made of smokeless flame, and they’re a good, or bad, or kind of neutral jinn, who are kind of interacting in the universe with people.

A lot of times in Islam, they’ll say, “I was tempted by a jinn.” Like, “A jinn took me over and made me do something that I wasn’t supposed to do.” So jinn has that power to kind of influence you to do things maybe you weren’t supposed to do, but they also can be benevolent and kind and not do anything. So I thought for Summer’s character, as she was struggling to define her identity, define her sexuality, and also be in this religious space, she would be interested in the jinn as a concept for temptation, for desire, and for free will and the choice between right and wrong. It’s kind of a parallel for what she’s feeling. She’s feeling these desires and these emotions for Tahir, who is a devout Muslim, and he is reciprocated. Is that something bad or is that something good? Or can it be, you know, a pure thing? Can you still desire and can you have this intimacy in this religious space?

I think that within a lot of times in our community we don’t have these conversations about sexuality, especially for young girls. It’s something that when I was growing up, I didn’t have that platform. So I thought, you know, the title of Jinn should kind of play on Summer’s feelings and how she connects that mythology to what she’s experiencing within the film. It came from looking through Summer’s perspective and how she would kind of interpret this mythology in connection with her own journey in the film.

I know that some of the actors in the film Jinn are Muslim actors, but then there are some actors who are playing the role of a Muslim that is not. For example, Kelvin Harrison Jr. who plays Tahir — is not Muslim. What was your process in choosing who gets to depict these roles?

Nijla Mumin: Yeah, so my process was all about who could embody these characters in a way that was truthful and honest. And I knew I knew it wasn’t a requirement that they be Muslim, but that they have an openness; an openness to the religion, and to learning about it, and to entering that space with no judgment. I think a lot of times, because of the representation of Islam in mainstream media, people have all these preconceived notions, and they come to this religion or these people with those notions and place this judgment, and I didn’t want that. All the actors in the film had this incredible openness to the religion and want to portray it in the most honest light possible.

For the Imam character, actor Hisham Tawfiq, he is a Muslim. And I knew I wanted a Muslim to play that character. The Imam is a religious leader in the community, someone who people confide in, they look to, and he was a big supporter of the film from the Kickstarter, and I really appreciated his performances in other work that I’ve seen him in. And his father was an Imam as well, so he had this kind of relationship to that character and I thought, you know, he could really embody that.

The other actors, Kelvin Harrison Jr. playing Tahir, I worked with him previously on my thesis film for Cal Arts, and that was at a point where his career was just beginning and I loved working with him. He’s one of the most committed, talented actors I’ve ever worked with. He’s had a lot of success at Sundance and A24 Films. He actually asked me to audition for the film, and once I saw his tape, I just knew that he was the one for the role. Like I said, he came in and we talked on the phone. I gave him stuff to read. I gave him videos to watch.

The same thing with Zoe. Zoe Renee, who plays Summer. We had open call auditions. We saw so many girls, and when I met her and when I watched her tape, I couldn’t stop watching it. She has this innocence, but this edge and this kind of grit to her that is very relatable to people who watch the film. She also had the need and that desire to want to learn about the religion — and to want to respect it. That’s really what I wanted from the cast, is just the openness to learn and to really come into this with an open mind. Simone Missick, playing Jade, has a wonderful story that she’s actually a very devout Christian. She was able to really bridge her Christianity with Islam and see that it’s a pure faith, just like hers.

This film is autobiographical for you. What parts of the film were your story, and were you hesitant at all in sharing certain aspects of this narrative?

Nijla Mumin: Definitely. It is semi-autobiographical. We as filmmakers, we do take elements of our lives and we dramatize them and we fictionalize parts. I was born into an African-American community, so my father was already a Muslim and my mom was a Muslim at the time. When my parents divorced, my mom kind of…she’s spiritual and she still observes Islam, but she’s not a practicing Muslim. So what happened was, I would kind of go back and forth between my father’s uber-religious kind of world, and then my mother, who kind of gave us more freedom. 

But at the same time, I had these questions about sexuality, and there was no way for me to really talk about that with my parents. My father has always been so immersed in the religion of Islam, and so I never felt I could really talk to him about sexuality. I think that’s a big thing, especially for Black girls. When you’re trying to mature and decide if you want to lose your virginity, if you want to be with someone, and you don’t really have your parents or someone to talk to about it.

So that was definitely something that came from my upbringing, as well the themes of dance. Summer the dancer. I always was dancing in dance classes, and I knew from an early age I wanted to be an artist, so all of that is, in essence, coming from my experiences. Being around my friends. The whole female friendship thread is from my friends. I had a close, tight-knit group of Black female friends, and sometimes there was Islamophobia within that community; you know, people making fun of me because I was Muslim. Within the African-American community, sometimes I felt like I didn’t fit in because I wasn’t Christian.

I wanted to kind of bring all those threads in, but I was very fascinated with the idea of converting. Coming into this religion fresh with fresh eyes. Especially in our society, because I think the audience can kind of enter through Zoe, through Summer’s character who’s entering the religion as they are kind of following her character. I wanted to do that kind of purposely in order to place our entities with her as she journeys into the community in that way.

I had the opportunity to chat with some of the cast yesterday, and one thing that stuck out to me was the fact that there isn’t really another film out there that offers this kind of story that Jinn does. It’s rare that Black Muslims get to even see their stories reflected. How important was it for you to make a film like Jinn, and show it to the masses here at SXSW?

Nijla Mumin: Definitely. It was so important for me to make the film because, like I said, I grew up not really seeing the community represented and not really seeing myself represented in a lot of the TV and films that I consumed.  I think when I wrote the script in 2015, and I think that was also the summer that the movie Dope came out, and I saw Dope. There are so many stories, coming of age stories within African-American people, within people of color, within LGBT communities that need to be told. And I was like, “I have to write this coming of age story that involves African-American Muslim people and a Black teenage girl.”

We’re not just Muslim; We’re African-American and we have a tradition that comes from being in this country and being discriminated against racially. My father’s from Louisiana, so that brings a whole nother southern kind of tradition into my life. And I think we miss out on those textures when we just see Muslims as an immigrant or a Pakistani person. We have to acknowledge that the African-American Muslim experience is different in some ways, but that in itself it’s universal, because we’re just people like everyone else. So I think it’s important. 

It is important, and the film made its premiere here at SXSW last night. What’s been the response so far since the film made its debut here?

Nijla Mumin: It’s been a really, really great response so far. We had our second screening today, which was sold out, and it was beautiful. The first screening was also a really good experience. I feel like the audience was really into it, really engaged. Today, it was a very lively Q&A and some people were in tears — I think it’s reaching people. It is a film that is about a Black girl, about this identity, an African-American Muslim. But I think the emotions that it evokes are just human emotions. So there are people who are just connecting to it in that kind of way, and I think that’s really important.

I also know that this film is not an easy film. It’s not a film where you can come in and you just think, “Oh, this is going to be about extremism and about strict Islam”. I’m not doing that. People expecting to see that film, they’re not interested, and that’s fine. I know that some people are going to be put off by what I’m doing, but at the same time, this is the story I wanted to tell, so it’s been a great response to people who understand what the story is trying to do.

What do you hope audiences will learn from watching Jinn and just having this experience of seeing this family that for the first time, we’re seeing just a Muslim Black family being normalized and there’s not anything radical, there’s not anything extreme about their experience. They’re just another family, you know, living in society. A coming of age, dramatic story. What do you hope that audience will receive from seeing Jinn?

Nijla Mumin: I think, you know, what’s beautiful to me is that people’s interpretations can be so varying and different and I welcome that. But I am big on character and that people feel a connection to my characters. If by the end of the film, people are still thinking about Summer, still thinking about Jade, feeling something for those characters; for Tahir, for Rasheedah, I feel that this film has done its job. Because then you have connected with someone on a human emotional level, and you are wrestling with what they wrestled with. So just the connection. The connection to the characters, and to the world; a world that may not be familiar to you, that you felt welcomed in and that you were engaged with.

Because I think, you know, I didn’t set out to educate anyone about Islam through the film. But I think because there’s so little information on just what everyday Muslims go through, that this film can be something that youths can watch, or people in colleges can watch and just have a conversation. Have a conversation and feel a connection to the characters. I think that’s what I would want, and for us to honor Black girls and teen girls. Those girls really have so much going on in their lives and, I’ve worked with youth, and I wanted to give a platform for young girls to have a voice.

Interview by: Jamie Broadnax

The Problem with the Biopic

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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