by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Named one of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film by Filmmaker Magazine in 2017, Nijla Mu’min is an award-winning writer and filmmaker who tells stories about black girls and women who find themselves between worlds and identities. Her debut feature film, Jinn, premiered in narrative competition at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival, where she won the Special Jury Recognition Award for writing. Jinn is the story of a 17-year old black girl whose world is turned upside down when her mother abruptly converts to Islam, prompting her to reevaluate her identity.
Mu’min sat down with LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher to talk about the film and her own creative process.
John Bucher: Can you tell me how personal the story in Jinn was for you? How much do you see yourself in this character?
Nijla Mu’min: It’s loosely inspired by some of my experiences growing up. I grew up in a very vibrant, African-American Muslim community in Northern California, in the Bay Area. And when I was born, my father was already Muslim and my mom was a Muslim as well, so I actually didn’t have an experience where my parents converted to Islam when I was a teenager, but I wanted to explore what that meant for people to enter into a religion and convert, and so that’s where the film kind of deviates from my own experiences.
When I was growing up, when I was a young girl, I really loved the feeling of being in the Islamic community and going to the mosque and being a part of that community. But when I became a teenager, I started to question things around my identity and be introduced to different things related to sexuality and pop-culture and music. I just had this confusion around who I was, and that’s really how the character of Summer came into being, through my teenage years and kind of all of the different things I encountered related to religion and also to sexuality and to family during that time.
Summer was kind of a composite character of myself when I was a teenager and some of the students that I taught as an after-school instructor and other people that I knew. She came from all these different sources. When I was growing up, I looked to the arts to express myself in poetry and dance.
Summer is also really, really close with her mother and I had that same really close relationship with my own mother. That mother/daughter narrative is largely shaped by the one with my mother, even though the one with my mother wasn’t always about religion — it was about me trying to be accepted by my mom and loved by my mom and grow with my mom.
John Bucher: We don’t see nearly enough black women on the screen, sharing their stories, especially from within the Muslim culture. This is a really unique window for many viewers into a world that they may be unfamiliar with. You’ve done an amazing job welcoming those who may be unfamiliar with aspects of this culture into this story and into this world. One of the things that really brought me in was how much I enjoyed being in the mosque with Summer and hearing the things that were discussed, the stories, and the explanations of who the Jinn are within the Muslim tradition. Can you talk about the first time you became familiar with the concept of the Jinn?
Nijla Mu’min: The mosque scenes are some of my favorite as well. I really wanted to build a complex narrative around that location. I became familiar with the Jinn as a young girl. Growing up in that community, you hear people talk about the Jinn, or they’d say, “I don’t want the Jinn to influence me,” or “The Jinn got in my head.” People talk about the Jinn like these beings that can be evil and can tempt people to do things that they’re not supposed to be doing. Satan is known as a Jinn, so that’s the worst that you can get — the devil. That’s really what I knew, I knew of the Jinn as an evil thing growing up.
It wasn’t until I became older when I started to actually research and read about the Jinn in both the Quran and in other religious texts that I learned the Jinn are not all evil. They can choose to be that way, or they can be like people. They exist on a spectrum of behavior. They’re living in this other world, and they’re made of fire, where people are made of clay, and I just found this really fascinating — this whole mythology associated with the religion. I thought my character, Summer, would really be fascinated by this and I wanted that to form a parallel to what she was experiencing in terms of her sexuality and her relationship to Islam and to the boy she likes. She’s wondering if she’s tempting him. Is she a bad person because she’s feeling sexual feelings for this person but keeping it a very pure romance at the same time?
John Bucher: You mentioned the sexuality piece, and I think that one’s of the very universal things about your story — that no matter what tradition someone grows up in or comes from, there seems to often be a conflict between human sexuality and religion. It’s almost rare to see those two things coexist in any space in a way that people can live out their organic, natural lives without running into problems when sexuality bumps up against religion. Can you talk about that? I don’t think a lot of audiences are necessarily going to think of Islam as also running into that trouble. We hear more about Christianity having the issues with sexuality.
Nijla Mu’min: I think it’s interesting. In screening this film for so many different people — a lot of the people who have seen the film are not Muslim. They come from Jewish backgrounds or a Christian background or some other religious background and they related so strongly to what’s going on with religion and sexuality. I actually met someone whose father was a pastor, who was in tears after the film, because she related to it so much.
For me, I knew that would resonate with people outside of Islam. But when I was writing it, I was just writing it from a truthful space, from a personal space, so I didn’t really think, “Oh, I want this to resonate with all these different people.” I think people are looking for ways to grapple with or understand their own lives, and when they see this film, they’re able to connect their own experience with Summer’s experiences.
We are just people. We want to be loved, and at the end of the day, we fall in love. It doesn’t matter what religion you are, it can’t stop someone from falling in love with another person. Those are real questions and real emotions that people feel, and that’s what makes this film a more sophisticated approach to talking about religion. We’re not really offering an answer or any clear-cut way to understand this. It’s really just presenting what it means to be a person and a teenager in a religious environment and how you figure out what you’re going to do with yourself, with your body.
John Bucher: A lot of our readers are creatives themselves, people who are writing and creating stories. Can you talk about your own writing process? Are you a morning writer, an evening writer? Are you someone who writes a little every day? Tell us about your creative process.
Nijla Mu’min: I’m a writer, a die-hard writer. First and foremost, that’s what I am. I love writing at night and staying up really late. That’s when a lot of ideas come to me. I’m one of those people that can stay up until four o’clock in the morning working on something, and then the next morning I don’t want to get up. I’m definitely a nighttime writer, but I can write at any time of the day if I have a deadline I’m trying to get to, but I prefer nighttime. I just have my music, and my mind, and I’m really able to come alive in the night.
John Bucher: What do you hope that audiences take from Jinn?
Nijla Mu’min: I’ve seen so many people take away different things from this film. I think it would be if people can take away this feeling of love. Love is the most important thing that is needed in life. All forms of love matter at the end of the day. That’s what gets us through tough times. If we cannot love each other, we will not survive. In this film, love really wins out at the end, and I wanted that. I know some people don’t like happy endings, but I think it’s important to show that even when people disagree, even when there’s religious conflict, if we can operate on the basis of love and human connection, then that’s what I want audiences to understand and take away from the film.
Jinn opens in theaters on November 15 and comes to VOD and Digital HD on November 16.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.