Speaking from her home in Oakland, Calif., Nijla Mu’min connects her interest in storytelling to an early love of fiction and poetry plus the stories her dad would tell her growing up. “I’ve always been interested in pulling images from daily life, and poetry helped me do that — to understand how individual moments can reveal a statement about humanity,” she says. “Poetry also taught me about the economy of language, evoking emotion through imagery and brevity, which informs my screenwriting.”
The other major factor shaping Mu’min’s work is her early family dynamic. Primarily raised by her mom after her parents divorced, she’d visit her Muslim dad and be immersed in his environment. “I really loved going to masjid and being around different Muslim people,” she says. “Then I went into the public school system, where I was exposed to sexuality, pop culture and friends who weren’t Muslim. My mom, who is not a practicing Muslim, would encourage me to be free. So, my scripts and films usually center on black women and girls straddling dual worlds and at major turning points related to sexuality, family, identity or death.”
Audiences should see those themes and influences coalesce in the coming months as Mu’min’s debut feature, Jinn, finishes postproduction and heads out on the festival circuit. It’s a drama about a 17-year-old black girl, Summer (Zoe Renee), whose mom (Simone Missick) converts to Islam and strictly follows its teachings, while Summer reaches for her own creative interpretations of its scriptures. There’s a romance, too, between Summer and Muslim classmate Tahir (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), and early footage demonstrates Mu’min’s sure direction of her actors and ability to depict their teen world with real charm and insight.
Mu’min, a graduate of UC Berkeley who attended Howard University’s MFA film program and was a 2013 dual-degree graduate of CalArts’ MFA programs in Film Directing and Creative Writing, made her first short film on an Oakland street corner in 2006. Later shorts Two Bodies and Deluge garnered significant festival play, and Mu’min has gone on to receive support from virtually every independent film support organization out there, including Film Independent, the San Francisco Film Society, the Sundance Institute and IFP, and the Islamic Scholarship Fund. That didn’t mean, however, that the production of Jinn was an easy one. Mu’min quit three jobs in New York and moved back to L.A., and then financing fell through. But steadily a team of producers and production companies — including basketball player Elton Brand; Tina Mabry’s company, Morgan’s Mark; and the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a nonprofit with Russell Simmons as its chair — raised the necessary funds.
“There’s a mainstream narrative about Islam in the media in this country,” Mu’min concludes, “and with this film I’m trying to get away from that and show what it means to be curious or fascinated, or to question your identity.” And, she says, referencing another passion — photography — “I’m trying to take risks with my filmmaking and be aware of the impact images can have on a person.” — SM