2016 marks the 25th anniversary of the 1991 release of Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash, the first feature length film directed by an African-American woman to receive wide theatrical distribution. To celebrate and explore the film’s legacy, the Nickelodeon will present Daughters: Celebrating Emerging Female Filmmakers of Color, a three-day film festival featuring works by a selected group of contemporary female filmmakers of color. The festival will take place from Friday, November 11 through Sunday, November 13, 2016 at the Nickelodeon Theatre.
Writer/director Nijla Mu’min is one of the nine filmmakers chosen for this momentous celebration, and is already on everyone’s filmmaker to watch list. Mu’min consistently creates stories that are representative of black women who find themselves between worlds and identities. Her work has been recognized by the Sundance Film Institute, Urban World Film Festival, and the Princess Grace Awards. Her 2011 short film Two Bodies has screened at festivals across the country, including the Pan African Film Festival, Outfest, Frameline, and Newfest. Mu’min is currently in production for her first feature film Jinn – a narrative and exploration into identity, Islam and first love. She raised over $25,000 through Kickstarter for the project, and was selected to attend Film Independent’s Fast Track program.
On Friday, November 11th, Mu’min will screen her two short films Deluge and Dream at Daughers. Inspired by the 2010 mass drowning of six black teens in a Shreveport, Louisiana sinkhole, Deluge is a coming of age fantasy drama drama that revolves around a 15-year old girl who witnesses the drowning of her friends and finds herself dealing with the decision not to jump in. Dream tells the story of a 12-year-old girl who strives to rekindle her parent’s dwindling romance at her desert town’s annual carnival, and learns painful lessons about love in the process.
HBR had the opportunity to catch up with Mu’min where we discussed her career aspirations, creative inspirations, independent filmmaking, and her first feature film, Jinn.
HBR: When did you realize that you wanted to pursue your passion as a filmmaker?
Mu’min: When I was a junior at UC Berkeley, I decided I wanted to pursue filmmaking. I was immersed in poetry and creative writing as well as documentary film photography and I believe filmmaking was part of my progression as an artist and a writer. I wrote and directed my own short film with no experience or guidance. We shot it on the streets of North Oakland, mostly at night, under street lights and wet wind. I loved the thrill of crafting a script, of chemistry between actors, and the way editing allowed me to further hone the story. I was in love from that moment, and haven’t looked back since.
HBR: What was the inspiration behind Deluge & Dream?
Mu’min: My inspiration for Deluge came from two places- a dream, and a true story. In 2010, I came across a story about a group of black teenagers who drowned while trying to save one another in the Red River. This happened in Shreveport, where families had gathered for a fun summer gathering. Each teenager jumped in to help the other, but none knew how to swim and all they all died, except for one. I was saddened and moved by this tragedy, and started to think about black people and water trauma through a historical and contemporary lens.
Around this same time, I started to develop a story/ethos around black mermaids who were descended from the souls of enslaved Africans who jumped or were thrown overboard slave ships during the Middle Passage. These black mermaids guarded the ocean and protected the souls of these drowned ancestors and other people who perished there.
I had a dream about these black mermaids coming up to surface, and summoning a young black teenage girl to join them, after she witnessed her first love and her friends drown in a river. I merged the magical/fantasy element of the black mermaid narrative with the realist narrative, and examined one black girl’s relationship with water, informed by these historical foundations.
Dream is adapted from a short fiction story that I wrote while I was an MFA student at CalArts. It centered on a young girl, Dream, living in a black desert town, who associated the town’s annual carnival with the happiness and love between her parents, a truck driver and a beautiful, unsatisfied woman working at a shoe store. Dream longed for this colorful, sensual carnival to reunite her parents, whose relationship is near its end. Dream is about childhood hope and imagination set against the very real impossibilities of love and understanding. It is a story told through the eyes of a young black girl whose world is shaped by the family she knows and the desert that borders her home. It is a story of color, of dry air, churros, and realization.
Both films are coming of age narratives about young black girls faced with inevitable life changes, and the realizations they come to as a result.
HBR: What are some of the biggest challenges that you had to face in bringing these projects to light, and how did you overcome these challenges?
Mu’min: Deluge was a major challenge in itself. I was attempting to shoot a film about black mermaids and drowning, on-location in New Orleans, as an MFA Thesis film. This was not something that had been done before at my school, and some of my professors and other school staff were worried. I proved to them that I was capable of managing this production, taking the necessary safety precautions and developing strategies to shoot near water, choreograph a mermaid scene, and find my way around New Orleans to scout. I prepared extensively and worked with crew both in New Orleans and LA, to achieve this. While there were numerous challenges during shooting, I managed to tell a story I was proud of.
One of the biggest challenges of making films, for me, has been fundraising and raising money to make these films. I have several production-ready, award-winning feature screenplays that I am unable to make because I don’t have the money to do so. I am almost always involved in some form of fundraising for my films- either applying to grants, submitting my scripts for monetary awards, approaching and networking with producers and industry-connects – and it’s become an endless, integral part of my success as an independent filmmaker. I know how to make good films for really low-budgets, but at the same time, I want to get to a point where I can direct my more ambitious films for budgets that they require. I know that what stands between me and many other filmmakers, is not skill, or talent, or even passion, because I possess so much of those. It’s money. And I am still on the journey of learning and strengthening my knowledge of film financing so that I can make my films and have a lasting career.
HBR: How did you go about receiving funding/financing for your films?
Mu’min: I received the majority of the funding for Deluge from the Princess Grace Foundation. I was awarded a $25,000 Cary Grant film grant. This grant was a God-send at a time when we didn’t know how or where we were going to get the rest of the funds to shoot this ambitious film. I also did a crowdfunding campaign, raising $8,000 through Indiegogo and the support of so many people.
We were able to make Dream using funds from a previous screenwriting award that I won at the 2014 Urbanworld Film Festival. This film was extremely low-budget, and we received several favors, donations, and goodwill from folks wanting to help out. My then-boyfriend even chipped in and bought a ridiculously-expensive plane ticket so that my DP could fly to LA after his travel plans fell through. I am eternally grateful for that.
HBR: What would you like audiences to take away from each of these films?
Mu’min: We are human and imperfect, and that’s what makes life worth living. I create characters who walk a spectrum of guilt, joy, affection, jealousy, and vulnerability. I like to write messy characters with dreams, and sorrow, and fighting spirits, who want to be free, but don’t know how. I want audiences to feel a connection to my characters, based on shared human emotions.
HBR: What has been your greatest reward as a filmmaker?
Mu’min: One of the greatest rewards has been witnessing people engage with my films. Being a writer and filmmaker can often feel isolating because you’re writing and crafting a story that is personal and moving to you, but the process of sharing that story, directing it, and presenting it to other people can be so nerve-wracking. I’ve had the privilege of hearing how people interpret my characters and films, and watching and listening to audiences laugh and smile at scenes that I hadn’t even imagined could have that effect. That is the true gift of cinema.
HBR: Are there any filmmakers/directors/authors/cinematographers/artists etc. that inspire your work?
Mu’min: Yes, so many! Roy DeCarava, Frida Kahlo, Tupac, Mira Nair, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Danzy Senna, Malcolm X, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, Charles Burnett, Andrea Arnold, Andre Holland, Julie Dash, Ousmane Sembene, Raphael Saadiq, and so many more!
HBR: Do you have any advice for a young up and coming filmmaker who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Mu’min: Stop thinking, and start creating! I think a lot of times, we can overthink and over-theorize what we want to do, and we end up not doing it. There are times when I sit down to revise a script, or develop an idea, and I spend so much time thinking about the idea or the script, that I don’t write. There’s a thrill and a risk in trusting yourself to create, in getting out of your head and into your body to feel a character or a story forming inside of you. Sometimes, we doubt ourselves before we even start. That’s where we stumble. I am a proponent for beginning things, however messy or confusing they seem at first, they become clearer and more potent with time.
HBR: What impact would you like your work to have on the industry and on our society?
Mu’min: I think the personal impact is always the strongest, and most valuable. I remember seeing Malcolm X when I was 10 years old at Grand lake Theater in Oakland, and feeling personally affected and moved by that film. I was personally impacted by a scene in which Malcolm X led an impromptu march down a Harlem street, igniting so many black people in protest. I want my work to connect with audiences on a personal level, to make them think and feel. How they feel is not always up to me, but if I can elicit emotion in a person and have their attention for an hour or more, I am beyond grateful.
HBR: Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to share?
Mu’min: I am currently developing my first feature film, Jinn. The film centers on a black teen girl whose world is turned upside down when her mother converts to Islam, sending her on a quest for self-definition. The film is loosely inspired by my experiences. It’s a love letter to my upbringing, as I explore identity, Islam, and the coming of age themes of first love, attraction, and the line between desire and piety. With this film, we aim to complicate the mainstream narrative of Islam and Muslims to include people and communities who are often left out of the conversation.
In March, we raised over $25,000 for the film through Kickstarter, and were selected for Film Independent’s Fast Track Film Market and Panavision’s New Filmmaker Program. I was also recently awarded the First Place Narrative film grant from the Islamic Scholarship Fund, for the film. We are aiming for an early 2017 shoot. For more information on the film, LIKE us on facebook.