SxSW 2018 Interview: JINN director Nilja Mu’min

“Jinn is a coming of age film about a teenage dancer named Summer whose world is shaken when her mother, Jade, converts to Islam. At first resistant to the faith, she becomes drawn to some of it teachings, and experiences deep feelings for a Muslim classmate, Tahir, crossing the thin line between desire and piety.” — Director Nilja Mu’min

Congratulations on your film playing in Austin at SxSW this year! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?

Yes, this is my first time and I plan to attend my screenings.

So how did you get into this business?

I have a background in poetry and documentary film photography. In 2006, while an undergrad at UC Berkeley, I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker. I had no formal training at the time. I shot a short film in Oakland, and fell in love with the medium. From there, I went to film school at Howard University and CalArts, where I received an MFA in writing and film directing. I’ve directed a number of short films and have written several award-winning feature scripts. My short film “Dream” was recently acquired by Issa Rae productions for online streaming.

So how did JINN come together for you?

In 2015, I began writing the script for the film. I kept getting visions of a teenage black girl riding a hot pink bike through LA, and stopping to get a churro. I also got visions of her mother entering a warmly-lit mosque, being enchanted by Islam and becoming a Muslim. I wrote a story that centered on the impact that this mother’s religious conversion had on her daughter. My producer and I launched a Kickstarter campaign for the film in 2016, and received so much support. We then pitched the film to several funders and investors, and worked toward production in February 2017. We shot the film for 18 days across Los Angeles. We edited the film in San Francisco. It was a wild, exciting journey full of surprises, hardship, and rewards.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

Music drives me. Dancing drives me. Every morning while driving to set, I listened to a playlist including the artist Sza, and her music inspired my process in various ways. I also love singing and writing poetry. I make sense of things through writing poetry.

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

It was hard to shoot this ambitious, family drama within a low-budget framework but my previous experience working on low-budget short films and rendering evocative images and content, enabled me to work effectively during this shoot.

I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with and your cinematographer.

We shot this film on the Arri Alexa. My DP was Bruce Francis Cole, who is a highly skilled, masterful DP able to work within limited budgets and produce beautiful results. Jinn looks and feels like silk scarves, lip gloss, and the pain of being a black girl. The film’s color palette favors shades of pink to represent innocence and sexuality. Our journey begins as Summer rides her pink bike, with sun glistening off her afro. Though pastels and natural light are prominent, colors start to get darker, and light gets dimmer, as Summer goes deeper into the religion, and into a sensual realm. Direct POV shots are used sparingly to evoke a oneness between spirituality and emotion. We utilized smooth camera movement to mirror this sweet, soft world on the brink of collapse, and handheld movement to reflect the ruptures occurring as a result of that collapse.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

I look forward to interacting with the audience members who see my film. I am also looking forward to meeting other filmmakers, watching their films, attending panels, and dancing.

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?

We plan to screen at other festivals prior to our release. Stay tuned for more info!

If you could show your movie in any theater outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

I would screen it at the historic Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland, where I am from. I grew up going to this theater to see movies with my father and siblings. I was transformed after seeing Spike Lee’s MALCOLM X at this theater. Recently, I saw BLACK PANTHER there and had a similar out of body experience.

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive during a screening, even if it was your own?

I probably wouldn’t say anything. If they were distracting others with a bright screen, I may tap them on the shoulder and ask them to put their device away, but unfortunately these are the times we live in. We can only hope that people respect a film enough to watch it.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

Just start now. Don’t wait for anyone to tell you that you can make a movie because that praise or assurance may never come. It’s within you.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

One of the best movies I’ve seen at a festival was Ryan Coogler’s FRUITVALE STATION at the LA Film Festival. I was moved to tears.

JINN is screening at SxSW 2018. For more information visit
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