In advance of the 2018 SXSW Conference and Festivals, I had the chance to interview the filmmakers of Jinn, a feature film which premieres this weekend in the SXSW narrative competition. It tells the story of Summer, an African-American teen who is forced to adapt when her mother, Jade, suddenly converts to Islam. Below is the conversation with Nijla Mu’min, the writer/director of Jinn, and Avril Z. Speaks, the producer of Jinn as well as a Fuller Theological Seminary graduate (2014) and contributor to God in the Movies. Check out the Jinn site and the just-released trailer for more information on the film.
Andrew Neel (AN): Given the subject matter of Jinn having so much to do with faith, what are some of your earliest memories of faith or spirituality from childhood?
Nijla Mu’min (NM): I remember going to the masjid with my father when I was younger. I loved being a part of that community and seeing all the different people that were there. It was a really warm community of people observing Islam. It was largely an African-American masjid experience in Oakland. I remember praying with Muslim women and eating bean pie.
Avril Z. Speaks (AS): I remember going to church with my family every Sunday. My dad used to teach Sunday school. My sisters and I were all really active. We had a lot of young people at our church, and it was a good time to see our friends. It was fun. My earliest memories of faith and spirituality come from those years — spending those years at church with my family and friends, having fun.
AN: What was the process like of shaping the sacred space of the masjid for the film, and how did you try to reflect the communities of faith you grew up in through that process?
NM: I really tried to have the mosque (masjid) environment reflect the one I grew up going to. There were these aspects of community, and I always felt there was someone to talk to. There were these older women looking out for me. There were these kids I could joke around with and talk to. It was a sense of community and of people and coming together.
With the extras casting for the masjid, my vision was definitely to get more African-American people because I wanted to reflect the masjid I grew up going to, and because African-American Muslims are not well represented in media. When people talk about Muslims they think of someone who is an immigrant or not African-American. That was what I wanted — to replicate that communal African-American masjid environment with the extras. However, when you see the film, you see there are all different races of people in the masjid we created. It works for this film — it made it a more inclusive community environment. It becomes a place that Jade (the main character’s mother) and Summer feel comfortable and grow to really want to be there.
AS: From the behind-the-scenes perspective and the producer’s perspective, I feel like the masjid reflected what I thought about community in the making of the movie. The actual masjid where we shot was a masjid I found near where I used to work at Azuza Pacific University. The family that runs that masjid were just amazing people. I kind of felt like they kind of invited me into this community. I had passed by that masjid several times without stopping before, but when I went to go find out if we could shoot there, the woman who upkeeps it and I just kind of hit it off and became friends.
I went to an Iftar after Ramadan. I went to dinner and prayer. Even though we were there for the purpose of filming a movie, it was interesting to be welcomed into this community. I learned from Napa, the woman that runs the masjid, that they’re actually a Thai masjid, and they also feel like they are not always included in the narrative about Muslims, especially in Los Angeles. That was really interesting. That was a highlight in terms of building community.
There were people who really rallied around the film and the themes we were trying to communicate and wanted to champion the film on that end. There were friends I knew and families that let us use locations. People who brought us food, people who really extended a hand, just to help us get the production up off the ground. It was in the nuts and bolts of making a movie, and people related to the themes in some kind of way and wanted to help. Through those relationships and through those people helping out, I was able to learn new things about different communities and it opened up a new world for me.
AN: How did you decide to visually depict the spirituality of these characters? Faith is often such an internal thing, I can imagine it would be hard to illustrate on-screen.
NM: At the masjid, it was definitely a goal of having shots where you had actors stacked together. I wanted shots where there are four women in the frame, and we were shooting from the side in profile. It really creates this sense of togetherness that Jade could feel about the space and the people in it.
A large part of going to the masjid or going to church or any religious space is the community of people that go there. Our Director of Photography was Bruce Cole, he’s really amazing, and Bruce got the opportunity to kind of shoot the masjid from above. From the top floor, we shot downward onto the main area of the masjid where people pray and where people commune. Bruce got these overhead shots that are very beautiful and sweeping. They have this epic, religious quality about them. We did overhead looks on other shots as well to frame spaces that are important to characters, but that shot at the masjid was the first time we did it, and it adds this ethereal feel to the space.
The masjid is full of color. Especially the one I grew up going to. The scarves the women wear, the clothes people wear, what the imam is wearing – it shows this is a place that is sacred. There’s also a lot of greenery and foliage around that masjid, especially on the outside. We shot in the courtyard and made sure to see that natural beauty even in a metropolis. It’s about plants, colors, and bean pies. I was trying to create this sense of home for Jade. I wanted the masjid to be a haven for her.
Sometimes for Jade, we also had very intimate close-ups on her if she was reading the Quran or an affirmation or a du'a. We had to really try to convey her connection to this religion. And for Summer’s connection to it, we did similar things. We also experimented with handheld camera movements for Summer since she is kind of disoriented when she gets into the masjid. Whereas we used smoother camera movements on sticks for Jade for her first time there.
AS: One of the scenes that stuck out to me was Jade reading a du’a, and it’s this close-up shot, that’s really tight on her face. She has this really emotional reaction to reading this prayer. The way it’s shot, we have these intimate and quiet moments where you get a sense of what this means to her, or what this means to the characters.I would say, for me, I connected with those quiet moments in terms of the way Nijla and Bruce went about shooting this spirituality.
There’s another moment with Summer where she’s in her room, she’s reading about the concept of Jinn. That’s her connection to Islam in some ways. There are things going on outside of her room, but inside her room there’s this quiet moment, this intimate time as she’s looking up on her phone what Jinn even is. There’s one person responding to this spiritual moment. We see the results of how she interprets this personally. For films that are categorized as religious or spiritual, often the visual element does not come into discussions at all. How do you depict something so liminal? It’s great to talk about this and the ways filmmakers use their tools to communicate that kind of internal meaning.