***Every Friday, we will feature a young, up and coming woman working in film and television who is fearlessly blazing her own path in television and film while proving to the world that anything is possible. This week, HBR’s K. Nicole Mills had the pleasure of speaking with Nijla Mu’min, a screenwriter, filmmaker, and essayist, about her career aspirations and her first feature film, Jinn – a narrative and exploration into identity, Islam and first love.
Mu’Min has consistently created stories that are representative of black women who find themselves between worlds and identities. It’s this passion that has led her to craft award-winning short films including, Two Bodies, Dream, and Deluge, which premiered at the 4th Annual New Voices in Black Cinema Film Festival and won the 2012 Princess Grace Foundation Cary Grant Award.
What initially inspired you to pursue a career in filmmaking?
I realized I wanted to be a filmmaker when I was a junior at UC-Berkeley. I was deeply involved in writing poetry and worked in documentary film photography. My goal was to tell stories through those mediums. I knew that filmmaking was the next step in terms of photography and writing, so I took film classes at UC Berkeley in Film and started making short documentaries. I decided that I wanted to turn filmmaking into my career, so I just started making films!
While I was at UC Berkley, I did a little gorilla filmmaking. I taught myself how to use a camera, how to operate film equipment, and how to edit. That was the beginning of my journey.
I never waited for permission. Whenever I want to do something, I just start doing it, and that is how I started making films. – Nijla Mu’min
From there, I went to film school and I continued learning about different filmmakers and their craft and really developed a love of screenwriting; however, this journey all started with the initial spark and the believe that, ‘I can do this.’
After years of telling stories through photography, poetry, and other creative writing, I knew that filmmaking was where I belonged.I moved forward without any doubts because I knew my story was worth telling. – Nijla Mu’min
What was the inspiration behind your current feature film Jinn?
I was born into a Muslim community. My father is originally from Louisiana, and converted to Islam when he moved to California. My mother converted to Islam when she married him; therefore, I was born into a really tight-knit African American Muslim community. I have so many vivid details about all of the different personalities that I grew up around. Everyone had a strong opinion about everything, and there were so many colors, textures, ideas and individuals within that community. I wanted to render that form and paint a picture of the threads of my upbringing through my art.
That is really the inspiration behind Jinn, which is a coming of age story about a young teenage African American girl who is introduced to Islam when her mother converts and really goes on a journey of understanding identity and religion for herself.
I think religion is a very public thing, but it’s also very personal. I believe that people need to define it for themselves and have their own personal relationships with spirituality and religion.
Through my film, I dive deeper into that concept within the main character, and also explore feelings of first love. This character meets a boy within the Muslim community who she develops sexual feelings for, and they’re not sure how to navigate them within a community where sexual acts are not looked highly upon. This automatically causes complications around both their decisions and feelings. The film is based loosely on my upbringing and sheds a light on my dual identity as a member of two very different communities.
Once people have the opportunity to see this film, what do you hope they take away from it?
There are so many complexities to people. Not just Muslim people, all people. At the core I’m telling a universal story about identity, family, and community. We have so many mainstream representations of people saying ‘this group is this way, and that group is that way.’ The media leaves us very little room to truly explore humanity.
I love digging into the humanity of individual people and hoping that someone who may be unfamiliar with this group of people or have certain biases, can enter this world fully and really come away with an emotion or a feeling. It’s really important for me to humanize people and leave the audience feeling something. I want to invite people fully into this world so that we all have the opportunity to understand one another and grow. – Nijla Mu’min
What keeps you moving forward towards pursuing your passion despite the rejection that we all face in this industry?
I am in love with the feeling that I get when I am creating. For me, creating is almost a spiritual journey. When a story develops in my mind, and I am driven to write a script, it is one of the most beautiful feelings that I have ever experienced. When I am out in the world, sometimes images and stories will come to me, and these real life images will become scenes in my scripts. I truly value these experiences! There are so many things in this world that can pull me away from this feeling such as my day job, family, work etc, but when I reach a space where I am able to bring life to a story, I am so grateful and feel so alive and happy in the process. This feeling is what keeps me going.
There is statistical evidence that proves that women do not get many opportunities to direct big budget films despite the face that they are just as qualified as male directors. Those jobs just aren’t offered to us, and we are being passed up because of gender-biases. This really points to systemic issues within the Hollywood system.
As a woman of color, many challenges present themselves when it comes down to getting a film made; however, I no longer take rejection personally and never allow it to affect me emotionally. I just keep working on the things that I can control. Eventually hard work will produce results stronger that will eventually overcome gender-biases. – Nijla Mu’min
What advice would you give to other aspiring directors who are inspired by your journey?
I would tell anyone who wants to be a filmmaker to just ‘do it!’ I went to UC Berkeley, but there was no major film program at that institution. I didn’t know any filmmakers or anyone in this field at that time. I just decided in my mind that it was something that I wanted to do, so I grabbed a camera and learned how to do it.
I wasn’t initially sure where to begin; however I knew I had a story. The power to tell a story always comes first. If you have a story that is powerful that needs to be told, then you have to start taking whatever steps are necessary to tell that story. – Nijla Mu’min
How do you hope to make a difference in this industry?
In addition to filmmaking, I work with youth and teach them about art through film and video. I think it’s important to pass on these tools to the next generation. If we have the information and the resources, we only become stronger as a film community by building and teaching our youth. Women like Ava DuVernay, are giving us insight and information that allows us to proceed forward. Through her distribution company ARRAY, she is creating a community that is invaluable. I am learning from it and I hope to teach others in this manner as well.
As I learn, I would love to continue to pass the knowledge to younger generations, so that they have even more opportunities in this industry.
I want to tell stories that are true to me, and filter the voices for communities that are underrepresented and negatively portrayed in the cinematic realm. By doing that, I aim to provide other opportunities for these communities to gain access to this industry. – Nijla Mu’min
If you want to learn more about Nijla Mu’min please check out her website HERE