As a longtime fan of indie films as an outlet for new voices to give expression to stories involving diverse subcultures, I was happy to reach out to Nijla for an email Q&A. Today in Part 2, Nijla discusses her new movie project Jinn:
In 2014, you were one of 10 writers selected for the Second Annual Sundance Institute Screenwriters Intensive. What was that experience like and filmmaking lessons did you take away from it?
I was really nervous when I first arrived at the Sundance office. It seemed like I’d been working for many years to get to that point- writing and revising scripts, taping flashcards on walls, and creating stories. But once the workshop began, the nerves were replaced with generative, inspired dialogue and exploration of my story and its characters. The next day, we were assigned Sundance advisors who gave honest, helpful feedback on our scripts and discussed next steps with us. The feedback I received was extremely helpful, and I was able to make some changes to my script that elevated the material in ways I hadn’t imagined before the workshop.
The current project you’re working on is your first feature length film Jinn. Here is its plot summary: “A shape-shifting, pepperoni- loving, black teenage Instagram celebrity converts to Islam. Here’s what happens.” What was the inspiration for this story?
I would go with my father to Masjidul Waritheen in East Oakland, a large, pink building with shiny hardwood floors, chandeliers, and an expansive green carpeted area for salat. During salat, I prayed side by side with Muslim women, many of them African American. They wore sheer stockings and toe rings, and their feet touched mine. After Juma, my father sold scarves outside the masjid- lavender, black and gold prints on polyester, rayon, and silk. The scarves billowed in the air as he held them for passing women to purchase. Some nights, I’d go to the masjid with my father and watch him commune with other Muslim men about the Qur’an. This was more than a masjid, but a place of wonder and magic. There were so many rooms, and passageways leading to places I did not know.
As I got older, I started to see that the images, feelings, and beliefs that I associated with Islam were very different than the ones popularized in mainstream media, in my social circles, and even in my extended family. I knew Islam to be close and intimate. I knew it be complex. I knew Islam to be stories from the Qur’an, my father dancing at a nightclub before making salat in the morning, and warm bean pies. Jinn is my attempt at capturing the tangible, complicated world that I know Islam to be, while examining the ways that identity and experiences impact one’s interpretation of it.
Given the heated rhetoric about Islam emerging from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, how do you think Jinn fits into the cultural zeitgeist?
Jinn is a coming of age film about identity, first love, and Islam. It’s about internal conflict, dancing, flirting, smiling, crying, loving, and laughing, from the lens of a black girl named Summer. Some of the people in it are Muslim. Some women wear hijab, others don’t. Summer’s mother, Jade, becomes drawn to Islam, but not in the terrorist/extremist way that is often popularized in our news cycle. It is everything that mainstream media and conservative pundits negate and malign, and probably don’t understand. It is about people with individual, distinct personalities and motivations. These are the people I grew up knowing. They are Muslims.
How would you describe the protagonist of your movie Jinn?
Summer is mature and confident, yet vulnerable and impulsive. She’s a very independent teenager, and craves freedom in all forms, from clothing to music, friends, and even food. She eats greasy hamburgers and hot churros but has a dancer’s body. She wants to study dance in college and is waiting to hear back from Calarts about whether she was accepted to their BFA Dance program. She’s a performer in other aspects of her life as well, and is somewhat of a teenage hustler capable of switching up her look and demeanor to get what she wants, and who she wants. But things get complicated when her mother converts to Islam, pressuring Summer to do the same. Summer’s identity and sense of self come into question- who is she, why is she that way, and can these worlds coexist?
Imagine Jinn gets produced and plays in movie theaters. What do you want moviegoers to be feeling as they emerge from the theater at the end of your movie?
I want audience members to be feeling something- refreshed, in love, moved- but what exactly they will feel may not be up to me. I think that is the power of art, and cinema. It’s the interpretations and experiences that we all bring to it. One of my favorite parts of screening my films and having people read my scripts, is to hear their interpretations, and the emotions they felt. My favorite films are ones that take me out of my head, and linger in my body for hours, or even days. I am sure the directors of those films intend for me to feel a particular way about their film, but I may or may not. One of my favorite films Sin Nombre, directed by Cary Fukunaga, left me feeling a somber sense of hope, though the end of that film is very tragic to many viewers. I was left with images of the main character starting a new life in America. Jinn may make some people uncomfortable at times, but it doesn’t stop there. There’s also isolation, togetherness, and love. It is not a safe, wholesome film. It’s a dramatic rendering of identity, duality, and relationships.
You initiated a Kickstarter campaign with a goal to raise $25,000 to help fund production of Jinn and ended up with over $27,000 in pledges. What were some of the keys you discovered in managing a successful crowdfunding campaign?
I discovered many things during that Kickstarter campaign, many of which I wrote about in this article for Filmmaker Magazine, about launching a successful Kickstarter campaign.
You have had some influential people in the filmmaking community champion Jinn including Ava DuVernay and Franklin Leonard. How did those connections happen and how important was their support?
I met Ava DuVernay shortly after the release of her first narrative feature film, I Will Follow. I was so inspired by her hands-on, grassroots approach to independent filmmaking and how she championed so many filmmakers of color and women. I started to get involved with her company, AFFRM, and then was given the opportunity to work as a PA on her film, Middle of Nowhere, which was one of the best film experiences I’ve been a part of. Since then, I’ve kept in contact with her, and have had the chance to interview her for numerous publications. She’s someone I look up to in many ways.
I met Franklin Leonard after he served as a judge for a screenwriting contest that I won during the 2014 Urbanworld Film Festival, for my feature-length script, Noor. I spoke with him after the festival, and he encouraged me to continue developing the script and to look into putting some of my scripts on The Black List, which I later did. Jinn is currently listed on The Black List and has a score of 7.
Having Franklin and Ava’s support during our campaign really went a long way in galvanizing others to learn about the project, and support it. Franklin Leonard sent a tweet that resulted in several of his follower’s donating and sharing the project, including a $1,000 donation from director/producer Salim Akil, who read his tweet. It was amazing and magical and surprising. I was beyond happy to have the support of people who have made such huge strides in this industry.
What is the status of the Jinn movie project?
We are currently in pre-production on the project. We are in the midst of casting, so look out for some exciting updates on that soon. We were recently selected for the Panavision New Filmmaker’s Program, to receive a camera package, and we were selected for Film Independent’s Fast Track Film Market, where we pitched the film to over 50 production companies and executives. We have locations, some wonderful crew, an Executive Producer and we’re aiming to shoot by the end of this summer.
Where can people go to find out more about Jinn?
People can find out more about Jinn on our facebook page and our Kickstarter page, where we post the latest updates about the project.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I see myself writing for television and for film, and working with other writers and filmmakers under my production company, Sweet Potato Pie Productions, LLC, to develop, produce, and acquire powerful media content that empowers communities to think, feel, and act.
Finally what advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Do it! Start writing, start shooting, start feeling. There’s no better time than right now. Thinking and theorizing are great, but sometimes you just have to get some ideas on paper, and start making mistakes before you succeed. It’s a part of the process.