Editor's Note: Behind the Lens is a digital video series featuring bold California indie filmmakers pushing the boundaries of their craft. Each episode captures the personal experiences that inform a filmmaker's work and the risks they take to bring stories to the screen.
Nijla Mu’min didn’t grow up with much media that reflected her experience as an African-American Muslim woman, so she created her own. Her semi-autobiographical film, Jinn, follows a teen girl named Summer as she navigates friendship, love, sexuality—and all the confusing territory that comes with being a teenager—while adjusting to her mom’s newfound Islamic faith. “I love the African-American Muslim community I was born into, but just like many teenage girls and teenagers, I began to question a lot as I got older,” says Mu’min, who was born and raised in the East Bay and attended a mosque in East Oakland.
After Summer’s mom converts to Islam, her expectations of her daughter clash with Summer’s lived reality as a high schooler in Los Angeles, where Mu’min shot the film. Questions of family and belonging, faith and community arise as Summer attempts to balance her religion and the pressures of being a teen—something Mu’min went through as a young girl in the Bay Area, though she says her parents weren’t quite as strict. Mu’min, whose directorial credits include Ava Duvernay's hit series Queen Sugar on Oprah's TV network, addresses these threads of inquiry with skill; her characters don’t have all the answers, and the messy ways they respond to their complex circumstances makes them feel all the more human.
Jinn enjoyed a successful run on the festival circuit, picking up awards at SXSW and the Blackstar Film Festival. Following a sold-out Oakland premiere last month at the Matatu Festival at Grand Lake Theatre, Jinn hits theaters on Nov. 15. KQED Arts sat down with Mu’min to learn more about her first love of poetry, the motivations behind her filmmaking and how more diverse representation in Hollywood can lead to better, more nuanced storytelling.
How did you get your start in filmmaking?
Filmmaking was a natural progression from other arts forms that I was immersed in first -- creative writing and poetry. I started writing poetry when I was a young girl and continued throughout college into adulthood. Then when I attended UC Berkeley, I developed a love of 35 millimeter film photography; developing and printing my own photos was just very cathartic for me, and I loved telling stories through photography. So I felt like filmmaking was the next destination for me. I started to take film classes at UC Berkeley and made my first short film on a North Oakland street corner. And from there I went to film school at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts.)
How do you define success for yourself?
Success for me is being able to create and keep creating and to know that those creations are impacting people on an emotional level. At the same time I want to be able to live comfortably and be able to have a car and pay my bills. So that is a part of success too. We're taught, ‘oh, we're just artists, and we're just here to make art.’ But we have to have a sustainable life. And I'm trying to get to the point where I don't have to worry about how am I going to pay my rent and I can create every single day.
What is a source of inspiration for you that might be surprising to other people?
I don't really share this a lot, but when I was a young girl, in the first grade, I had some struggles with reading. Reading and writing was difficult. And I had a teacher who even went to the point of saying that maybe I should repeat the grade. I didn’t want that, so it became like an obsession. I became such an avid reader. I started reading novels, adult fiction, black fiction, black history books, anything I could get my hands on. Then I started writing. So that core inspiration is I was doubted at an early age. I was told that I couldn't do something, and I said, ‘no, I can do it.’ And I feel like that's my greatest strength. Being told that I couldn't do something, only made me do it better.
What is something you wish you could say to your younger self?
I would tell myself to not always seek approval from other people, because if that’s what's motivating you, that is not going to be sustainable. Early on, I wanted to be in certain places; I wanted to be accepted by certain people. Sometimes we need that approval to just remind us that we need to keep going. But when it doesn't come, you have to find another way to be inspired -- either from inside yourself or being around other like-minded artists or going to a movie and being moved by someone else's art. You have to know in your heart that you have to tell your truth, and you're going to do it no matter what, and it's something that people want to see.
What does the future of filmmaking look like in your ideal world?
In my ideal world, women, people of color, LGBTQ people are running the studio system and greenlighting films. That’s really the only way that we'll see an influx of nuanced, meaningful films -- if the people who are making the decisions reflect the creators and we see those positions being taken by people that look like us. Then I think we could see true equity in terms of hiring practices, in terms of people getting in the door. You know it is hard to just get in the room. So that's what I envision for the future -- more of us in decision-making roles to make it possible for us to be successful, and to direct those hundred million dollar-plus films. Because it’s not that we can't do it, the opportunities just are not given to us.