The debut feature from director Nijla Mu’min received Special Jury Recognition for Writing at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival.
An extremely personal feature debut, Jinn, from director Nijla Mu'min, explores the rocky, awkward, and ultimately accepting relationship between a teenage girl, Summer, and her mother who has recently converted to Islam. While the film could be considered a coming-of-age tale, it often feels like one in reverse: rather than highlight a child looking for approval from her parents, here, a parent who is outcast by both her job and family due to new religious pursuits looks to be understood and appreciated by her child.
By all accounts, Summer (Zoe Renee) is a normal teenage girl interested in dance, pizza, and boys. When she agrees to attend a service at the masjid with her mother, Sumer notices a male classmate of hers, Tahir (played by the continuously rising Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and begins to develop feelings that conflict with the teachings of Islam.
How religion and personal desire can conflict and negate a teen's urges and drive for self-discovery is at the heart of Jinn—a term defined as "any of a class of spirits, lower than the angels, capable of appearing in human and animal forms and influencing humankind for either good or evil"—and as our lead's need to express herself on social media raises a firestorm, the film isn't afraid to examine the consequences.
Mu'muin and her cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole spoke with No Film School for the film's premiere at SXSW 2018 about knowing when to go into production, how to identify the perfect collaborators on your first feature, and how in-camera filters and colors can subtly emphasize character.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuUddn4ubHc
No Film School: Nijla, I know that you have a background in education within the Bay Area, and I was wondering if, given how personal of a story Jinn is, you took to filmmaking as a way to share personal stories? Was filmmaking always an objective of yours?
Nijla Mu'min: Filmmaking was always my main objective, but I had to survive, and so my day jobs consisted of after-school programs teaching film workshops to teenagers and younger children. I did that in New York City and L.A., and working with youth and observing what they were doing—and learning about their lives—gave me a sense of purpose. Those film workshops were one of the inspirations for the development of Jinn. I was teaching them production on DSLR cameras, how to set up a tripod, etc. and making short narrative and documentary films with kids of all ages.
NFS: What made you feel like the time was right—or how did the opportunity present itself—to make your first feature? The project has gone through some very high profile artist-centered programs over the past few years, and I was wondering how the route to your first feature presented itself?
Mu'min: My producer, Avril Speaks, and I did a Kickstarter campaign in 2016, and the response was amazing. So many people reached out to me and told me how much they wanted to see this film. I knew that we were on to something. From there, we started pitching the film for funding, going through Film Independent programs, Sundance programs, the San Francisco Film Society granting programs, and it just was like, "Once the ship's sailed, there's nothing you can do and there's no turning back." I just had to keep going with it and expect the unexpected, especially when it came to this film. I would have never thought that it could be done in this amount of time, from 2016 'till now.
"It's can be hard to describe when you're working in a collaborative process, when you get to a certain level where everyone's working on an intuitive level."
NFS: And did you have a goal date of when to go into production?
Mu'min: We wanted to go into production in the summer of 2016, but we hadn't secured enough money yet and so we ended up going into production in February of 2017.
NFS: With this being your first feature, I imagine you almost have to work with the best people possible. What went into choosing and developing a working relationship with Bruce Francis Cole?
Mu'min: I gave Bruce a cold call. I saw some of his work and stills on Instagram, and they were beautiful. I also knew that he had worked with other black women filmmakers that I knew, and I watched a trailer for their film and really wanted to talk to him about working with me.
Cole: I got a cold call from Nijla, and we immediately started talking about the films we both enjoyed, coming-of-age films and films that had very minimal budgets, and things that we liked about indie filmmaking, the use of handheld, etc. She also made a playlist that we could all listen to, to get a vibe, or rather a feeling, for the story.
It can be hard to describe when you're working in a collaborative process, when you get to a certain level where everyone's working on an intuitive level. Even earlier today at the [SXSW Film Festival] screening, it came out that everyone intuitively was drawn to the aspect of wanting to see themselves represented on screen. And so we all share these similar things that we like.
"When Nijla says we didn't have enough money to go into production, we just did it."
We then decided on what kind of film we wanted to make, and, at that point, how we were going to do it. There were things like the Panavision New Filmmakers program that we took advantage of, and we then just found a crew, a very, very small crew of people that generally wanted to make this film happen. I was just the beginning of that assembly of crew people. It's hard, when you're on an indie film, to keep up with, and so you really need to have a strong camera crew.
I was fortunate enough to have worked with some of the camera crew on smaller projects prior to this one, and I knew that we would have a solid group of people on camera duties. With the team assembled around Nijla's vision (and with the producers attached), we were able to go into production. When Nijla says we didn't have enough money to go into production, we just did it.
Cole: They didn't want to go into production, and then Nijla said, "I can't pause this film anymore. I have to make this movie." Regardless of how much money we didn't have, we just all decided that we were gonna make the movie in February of last year.
NFS: The film is often about the constrictive nature of religion, and that goes head-to-head with a teenager’s more personal, physical needs and curiosities. When we first meet Summer, she’s shown rehearsing for a talent show that she and two friends will be participating in, and there are close-ups of certain body parts that are both sexual and a warning sign. How did you both discuss getting that across visually?
Mu'min: We definitely wanted to merge the freeness of this black teenage life, with the colors and the pinks and the light and all of that, with the indirect contrast of the world of the masjid, which is also very beautiful in its own way, with its natural light coming in. We wanted to bring those worlds together.
There would then be this tension and discomfort when we would [hone in on one particular thing.] We have a shot of the Imam sitting in this wooden structure, and as we tilt up on him, the viewer can sense his authority over the space. So while the visuals offer comfort and brightness, there's also a tension present between what Summer wants and the world that she's trying to navigate. We really tried to visually paint that world through those things.
"When we did our prep work, we had a bunch of things that we wanted to get, and then, of course, there's the actual making of it with whatever resources we have available."
Cole: And with minimal resources. We mostly just had the camera and the actors, but from a technical standpoint, we utilized camera position and camera movement, be it handheld or tripod. I don't think we had a dolly…
Mu'min: We knew that we wanted to do handheld for when Summer went into the masjid, as the situation is a little disorienting for her upon arrival. That’s in contrast to Jade's (Summer's mother) first experience, and so there's a smoothness to her entrance that has more composure. We really wanted to play with the camera movement in those respects.
NFS: That white, angelic lighting present in the masjid sequences often feels ironic. Is it a place of safety or, as evidenced later in the film, ridicule? Did you discuss the lighting of those scenes and how other films have shot in religious spaces?
Mu'min: Yeah, and there's a shot Bruce came up with where we're on top of the ceiling in the masjid—it's an overhead shot of the masjid—and it gives off this very spiritual feeling when Jade's character walks in. I think shots like that frame the space as a space of tranquility, peace, and spirituality. At the same time, toward the end of the film, we're using silhouettes and darkness to really illustrate how the two teen characters are going into this passionate, somewhat deeper world.
Cole: We were lucky that we were even able to get such a perspective on that space. When we did our prep work, we had a bunch of things that we wanted to get, and then, of course, there's the actual making of it with whatever resources we have available.
When we talked about the masjid, one of the things we wanted to get was God's perspective. It was a holy perspective, and so we just knew in the back of our minds that we had to put in an aerial shot.
When we location-scouted and decided which place we actually had access to, we looked up and saw this ceiling space that no one was actually allowed to go up to. We immediately said, "If we can get up there, we can get that shot." And so we got up there and were able to get that shot! Along with the natural lighting, it was all about what the space would and wouldn't allow us to do.
"We played a lot with a pink filter in-camera actually, and that’s very rare these days."
NFS: Summer’s hair, often sprinkled with strong purple streaks, complements her environment; in one scene her hair color literally matches the walls of the dance studio she’s rehearsing in. Was that intentional? Did you discuss Summer’s hair in relation to the colors and filters of your cinematography?
Cole: That was Nijla again. We had certain visual themes that we were playing with throughout the film, and one of them was with color. Nijla had a clear vision of wanting layers of magenta and pinks, and she knew how they would play into Summer's coming-of-age as a female. We played a lot with a pink filter in-camera actually, and that’s very rare these days.
Mu'min: When she's dancing in her room, toward the beginning, that has the pink filter on it, and in the rehearsal space…
Cole: It was in-camera because, again, Nijla made it very clear that that was a theme she wanted to play with, and so when we went to Panavision to get the camera package, it was like, “Alright, let me get the magenta filters, and let's see how we can visually build it throughout.” And so that space was one of the spaces where we used that filter and then interspersed it throughout the film. And then sometimes it actually played into what we were doing on set. There's this shot of a sunset in Inglewood, and while we were filming, Nijla was like, "There's the pink. Shoot it!"
Mu'min: Yeah, it was a pink sunset, and blue and green also played important factors in the film. For Islam, green is a color that represents purity and fertility and foliage, and so our masjid has a lot of greenery around it, a lot of plants. We tried to really focus on that.
We also have these blues that come in, especially when Tahir and Summer are together in his bedroom; there's this cool, breath-of-fresh-air type feeling between them that I really wanted to bring in. I was also really inspired by Moonlight and knew that colors were really important to telling a story, especially one about teenagers, emotions, and family. It's something we talked about.
Cole: And you were really adamant about the colors of the scarves in the masjid too.
NFS: The mother-daughter relationship is obviously central to this story, and often the two only have time to meet in their car, going to-and-from another place. The car is both a space for casual conversation and complete world-turned-upside-down encounters. Did the situations presented in each car scene affect how you decided to shoot it?
Cole: Yeah, and this is funny, because I know there are certain directors who, when they see a car scene, are immediately like, "Get that out of here!" A lot of it was in the script, and we had to stay in this car, because there was the house, the school, and then the drama that happens in-between.
It wasn't about, "Okay, let's put the scene outside of a car." It was about, "How do we get the scene in the car between these two people?" While it was a little bit technically difficult to stage, we found a way around it, and a lot ended up being with the car either coming to a stop or leaving a location. I mean, there's some difficult, trickery stuff we had to do.
Mu'min: Story-wise, I think for me growing up, being in the car with my mom when she was angry with me was [a very specific thing]. You see that in Ladybird too. As a teenager, it's like you're suffocating because you're contained in this space. You can't get out. There's some beauty there, for tension purposes at least, to put people in cars together and have that be a place of great conflict. It was intentional for me, story-wise, to have those in the film, especially as a result of growing up and having those (sometimes very painful) car interactions with my mom.
"You should have conversations with your DP, welcoming them to offer input about the visual design. If you don't, you're limited."
Cole: There's actually a moment where the mom is really upset. It's right after she finds out that Summer had her first sexual experience. The camera is placed behind her, and we're shooting, and she's crying. I always tell people when we're talking about shooting behind someone's back, "An actor will always be like, 'well, you're not seeing what's happening here.'" And for me, that was one of those moments where the audience was allowed to be a child in the backseat, watching their parent get really upset. You want to console them, but because they're sitting in the front seat, you can't. And so as a child, you just have to watch your parents be emotional within that scene.
NFS: With your first feature now completed, what did you learn about how to get the most out of the relationships you established on set?
Mu'min: That it's a collaboration, and that's the way I like to work. You should have conversations with your DP, welcoming them to offer input about the visual design. If you don't, you're limited. You're limited because you're creating a story, but it's not only your story. DPs have a really big impact on it as well. I like to collaborate with my team members, my DP, and my department heads. It's really important to me.
Cole: My dream is to get on a production where everyone, including the PAs, understands the story we're telling. Often times throughout the collaborative process, the bigger and bigger it gets, the less a personal touch on the project exists. I feel like it would be a beautiful thing if you were able to have everyone, including the dolly grips and everyone on set, say, "Oh, we should probably do a little move here, because I understand where Summer is right now." Everyone can add to the story. It can happen. You have to ask everyone on your team for creative input, and let them understand what the story is that we're trying to tell. Make sure that they're there for the story.
Mu'min: This is about the story, and it's important that people understand the story that everyone wants to honor. If they do, your film will benefit.