The coming-of-age sub-genre is played out, but just when you think there is not a single new experience to consider, a filmmaker like Nijla Mu’min comes along to slap your rigid, condescending notions out of your head. Her new film Jinn is ripped from her very being. Through her poetry, her fiction, and now her films, Mu’min is championing her experience growing up in the East Bay Area as a child caught between two ideologies. Her point of view is fresh, exhilarating, and not at all belabored in the usual hormone shenanigans associated with the adolescent adventure.
As Summer, Zoe Renee acts as Mu’min’s avatar, delicately balancing between her mother’s sudden conversion to Islam and the hyper-critical concern of her father. Through exposing personal pain and trauma, Mu’min hopes to connect with a broader audience but does not wish to trap herself in that pursuit. Empathy being the ultimate unifying endgame.
I spoke to Mu’min over the phone. We discussed the concern of adding one more coming-of-age story to the shelf, and how her film reveals a great void of voices within cinema. We talk about what finally compelled her to pick up the camera, how the lens is not that different than the pen, and why every cinematographer should put their soul into their Instagram account.
Here is our conversation in full:
Coming of age movies are genre unto themselves. However, when you encounter a voice like yours and a story like Jinn, you realize how few voices are truly represented within the coming of age story. What propelled you to tell your tale this way and right now?
I would say, it’s just been many years of wanting to tell this story. When I was growing up in the Bay Area, I wrote a lot of poetry that was exploring a lot of the issues in this film. So really just having those experiences growing up, having a Muslim father, and being from a Muslim community, wanting to explore what it meant to have this more multi-faceted identity. It just really was years in the making, always just wanting to tell my story. I love coming of age films. So I wanted to make my own and insert my voice into that genre of film.
Poetry and narrative fiction and non-fiction are very different than cinema, what finally got you to pick up the camera?
You know I actually don’t think they’re that different. It’s interesting for me because, in the way that I study poetry throughout my life, you see that a lot of poems are about storytelling and they rely on images. The succession of images and a lot of craft-based techniques in order to create an image or create something that we experience on a tangible level. I really just saw it as a continuum of art-making when I was in college at UC Berkeley. Writing a poem, taking a photo, I was really into photography, picking up a camera to tell a story through image and words and those conventions where it was just something that felt natural to me.
I didn’t feel like “Oh, I’m a poet and now I’m tackling something that’s entirely different.” I just felt like it was a natural evolution as an artist growing up in the Bay Area. That’s really where I wanted to go a step further and it felt like being a filmmaker was that step forward from writing poetry and taking photographs.
Was it easy for you to translate your own life experiences into this medium?
I would say I was able to do that because I have been doing it for many years, as I said, I wrote a lot of poems and a lot of my work is very personal. But it’s able to still appeal to other people and have a universal quality. So there’s a lot of things related to families, to love, to falling in love, to coming of age, learning life lessons. Those are themes that informed a lot of my work in the past years that are rooted in my life, but that people are able to really find themselves in or relate to it.
I feel like I had a lot of practice doing that in the years leading up to writing this script for Jinn. By the time I wrote the script for Jinn, I didn’t struggle with creating a personal film that also was relatable to other people because I feel like I have been doing that for several years with other films and scripts I wrote and also other art that I’ve created.
How important is universality to you as a filmmaker?
It’s not really that important to me, because I feel like things need to start in a specific place. Because if you go into writing a film saying, “Oh, I want this to relate to every person in the world, I want everyone to be the audience of this.” I think things can get very watered down. Then you don’t really have a perspective as a writer or director at that point, because you’re trying to, I guess, do something that everyone is going to like or everyone is going to relate to it. That’s just impossible.
Everyone is not going to relate to the work you make. So I don’t really think about that when I’m creating film and writing films or directing films. But I do think about emotion and I feel emotions, and I think that’s where people are able to find themselves in my work, is that they know what it feels like to have a family disagreement, a fight with their mother or they know what first love feels like. It’s really like people are able to get into the story based on those particular themes and emotions that I am evoking in my work.
Islam has been portrayed in a variety of ways in cinema, and often in a negative light within American cinema. What was crucial to you in depicting the faith of Jinn?
It is important that these characters are real. They’re just living lives like everybody else. I didn’t want to make a film that was trying to educate people on who Muslims are or what they do. We’re just people. We live lives like everyone else. We have problems like everybody else. So I just thought that was important because I get tired of seeing the same representation of Muslims either as this altruistic, perfect person who just prays and is inaccessible as a flawed human being. Or a very extremist fundamentalist hateful person.
I have to get away from that. The only way I can do that is to represent the people how I know them, how I know my father to be. How I know my mom to be. People around me who helped raise me. I just have to represent them fully and textured. Which I just never really see. I don’t see African American Muslim characters really seen or represented in media the way that I know them in my own life.
Have you shown Jinn to your family?
Yes. Yeah, my whole family has seen it, my dad has seen it, my mom has seen it, my sisters.
What was their reaction?
Well, they love it. They really love the film. My dad can’t stop talking about it. My mom has seen it probably about three or four times. My sister loves it. It definitely feels good to know that you make a film and your family loves it. I was a little nervous about what my father would think about it, but he actually was quite blown away by it. He talks about it all the time. It meant a lot to have that family support.
It was a long process to get this film made. It’s got to be a surreal experience, not only completing it, but then getting it to SXSW, winning the narrative prize there, and now making the publicity rounds with this film. Emotionally, how are you feeling sending this film out into the world?
It feels really good to witness how this film is being received and how audiences are embracing it. It makes me feel really good because when you’re making the film, things are really difficult, you don’t know if it’s going to come together. There were many nights and many days where I just didn’t know if this film was going to get completed, so to be here right now is a little fulfilling. Especially when I know that this film is impacting a lot of people and helping people to have conversations and feel emotions. That’s the most important thing to me. It feels really good!
Zoe Renee in the film is phenomenal as Summer, as this avatar for your own experiences. How do you even go about casting that character?
What was important to me was capturing the many dimensions of that character. That character resembles a lot. She’s a teenager, she’s not perfect. I knew I wanted to cast someone who had this energy, this effervescence, this kind of spirit about them that would allow the audience to follow her no matter what. The audience will be rooting for her and feeling every emotion she feels because she has this kinda mix of innocence, maturity. She can be a shape-shifter as the Jinn are and really convey all these different moods and emotions. That was what Zoe did. She was able to come in and really capture so much in her face. It’s a really great face and just … She’s got this natural way of performing that I love. It’s a great thing and I love that I found her because she really embodies the role and it was great.
Now in shaping the look of the film, what were your conversations with your cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole?
Yeah, there was a lot of conversation leading up to the production of this film. I actually had given Bruce a cold call to be the cinematographer because I had someone that I wanted to work with but our scheduling didn’t match up and I knew of him through other filmmakers who worked with him and I went on his Instagram and he had these beautiful film stills from projects he worked on. I loved his eyes just on a photographic level. It was really beautiful. So, a lot of the conversations were about coming of age films that we both loved. Fish Tank by Andrea Arnold, and Pariah by Dee Rees. We talked about Girlhood by Celine Sciamma which is like a Prince film.
We traded photographs, talked a lot about colors. This film has a lot of colors in it. The colorscape of the film and what colors represent … pinks of course when you think this maturity of this womanhood and girlhood. Greens and golds and blue all have a significance around the environment and how Jay was moving into that world against those colors. Using darkness and silhouettes in a way that could mirror the Jinn mythology and show us how deeply Summer and has now immersed their selves in another realm of passion that they hadn’t had at the beginning of the film when things were much more lighter.
We really talked a lot about how to convey the stages of these characters growth and also their decision through color and light, shadows and silhouettes. Also, with our camera movement, we wanted to have a lot of smooth camera movements on the tripod, especially when we’re first introduced to the Jinn through Jay’s perspective. It’s very … it’s holy, it’s smooth, it’s got this presence that is very ethereal to her. So once Summer comes into that atmosphere things get a little bumpy, we start to use handhelds, we want to really mirror how uncertain she feels at first and then merge those two camera styles through those characters.
So yes, a lot of conversation about how we want to portray all these different things through the cinematography but Bruce Cole, he really brought a lot of beauty to the film as you saw.
Jinn is now playing in select theaters and on Digital HD and VOD.