The Power of Cinema and Sweet Potato Pie: Nijla Mu’min Discusses Film-Making, Creativity and the Art of Making it Work

Deeply moved by Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Nijla Mu’min sought a career that would capture audience’s imaginations and combine her interests in writing and visual art. She followed her passion, making her first film guerilla style in the wee hours of the morning in Oakland, California. Nijla earned her BA from the University of California, Berkeley in Mass Communications and attended Howard University’s MFA film program. Here she discusses her path to making films and starting her own production company, Sweet Potato Pie Productions–named after her grandmother’s “life-changing” delicacies. She also explains her latest project Salaam, gives her take on the creative process and shares practical advice for making films on a budget.

How did you become interested in film-making?

I’ve been drawn to cinema since I was a young girl. My father would take my siblings and I to matinees at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, which is something of a bay area landmark. We’d sneak in fried fish sandwiches and Hanson’s sodas and watch films. If I can single out one of those experiences that had the most impact on me, it’d be when he took us to see Malcolm X, by Spike Lee. As the audience cried, cheered, hollered, and fully engaged with the film, I realized the impact that movies could have on people.

However it wasn’t until my junior year at UC Berkeley that I decided that I actually wanted to make films—to write and direct them. I’d always been an avid writer and at that time my love and involvement with photography was growing. Film-making seemed to be the perfect convergence of those two passions. So I began taking film and screenwriting courses, made my own “guerilla” film (which I shot on Oakland streets at 3am), interned at the San Francisco Black Film Festival and really immersed myself in everything cinematic.

Can you tell us about Sweet Potato Pie Productions? What is the mission of the company? What made you want to start it?

Sweet Potato Pie Productions is a production company named after the life-changing, delectable sweet potato pies that my late grandmother Geneva Wright made. Those pies were a symbol of family, of love, of emotion—all foundational elements that the production company rests upon. With the production company, I endeavor to create films and photography that exposes the most intimate details of the human condition. I am concerned with getting to the core of human emotions, interaction, and interpersonal struggle and triumph.

As a writer/director, the production company serves as an umbrella for the various projects that I complete. Having it allows me to exercise a greater control and autonomy with the work that I produce, and gives me a distinct “brand” of sorts that audiences come to identify with me as an artist.  I also believe that it’s vital, if not necessary, that women filmmakers and filmmakers of color look to involve themselves in the production and distribution aspects of film-making, helping to build a larger, collective presence in the film world. My production company is an attempt at doing that.

At the end of this post, readers can see the trailer for your upcoming film Salaam. What was the inspiration for Salaam? What do you think the audience will take away from seeing it?

Salaam is a coming of age film that’s loosely based on and inspired by my experiences growing up as a Black, Muslim girl in the bay area. It’s somewhat of a contemporary period film set in 1999, which examines the layers of identity and complexity in the life of main character, Sabaa Malcolm.

There is a famous quote by writer Toni Morrison where she says: “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” This is the approach I took with writing the feature script for Salaam. I knew this particular story was distinct in terms of it tackling black, muslim identity, girlhood, sexuality, and popular culture—so I wrote it.

Independent films such as Pariah directed by Dee Rees, Mississippi Damned
directed by Tina Mabry, and Amreeka directed by Cherien Dabis, also gave me the inspiration to add my own unique story and voice to the vast landscape of personal films in cinema today. I am all for increasing multifaceted, complex representations of people of color in cinema. Salaam is one of my contributions.

I cannot predict what a lot of audience members will take away because I believe that each person brings their own preconceived notions/interpretations into their viewing of art, rendering their particular response. What I hope comes across thematically to audiences and hopefully sparks dialogue is that identity and ways of being are never so fixed as they seem. Like Sabaa, many people navigate dual existences and don’t fit into rigid categories and labels. They are beautiful because of this.

I hope the film can also ignite discussions on the impact of popular culture on youth, especially teens, as they make sense of their personal, sexual, and societal identities early in life.

Are there any tips you can give to folks interested in making a film on a budget? What do you think are the most expensive costs in film-making? Are there any resources you would recommend to those interested in film-making?

If there’s one important thing I’ve learned about film-making since I began doing it is that it’s all about the TEAM. Literally.

It is essential that you surround yourself with folks who believe and support the story you’re trying to tell, and want your vision to manifest as much as you. It is in this type of collaborative process that a lot of low-budget films are made. When you have your team set, you can then reach out to them and pool your resources in terms of equipment, actors, budget, craft services, among other things.

If you’re working on no-budget, I think it’s important to let crew and cast know upfront that they will not be paid for their involvement in the project, but will receive credit and a stunning addition to their reel or portfolio. It’s also smart to start small and intimate, rather than try to direct a feature on your first try, for many reasons. Write a small, personal story and shoot it on a non-fancy camera. Experiment with lighting and tone. Read screenwriting and film-making books such as Screenplay by Syd Field. Read fiction novels. WATCH MOVIES!

If you’re not enrolled in a film school where access to equipment is easier to obtain, it can be difficult to get cameras, lights, etc. for your project. This is where networking and reaching out to other people comes into play. Send emails! (I’m the queen of sending emails to “inquire”).

Salaam (the trailer) was produced entirely without the backing of a film school funding source and it was here that the producer and production team became absolutely essential in trying to get the film made. There are also grants and funding sources that provide emerging filmmakers with film equipment to shoot projects. I would also suggest those if one is not enrolled in a film program.

Film festivals and screenings are also great places to watch independent films, meet emerging filmmakers, network, and get inspired! I would really recommend attending some and really studying what other filmmakers are doing to get their films made. For me, it was as an intern for the San Francisco Black Film Festival that I was opened up to a whole new world of independent black cinema. It really helped guide me as an emerging filmmaker.

These are just some suggestions as I’m still learning myself. I still seek mentorship and guidance on so many things. Experience is the best teacher.

Why do you think film is such a powerful art form?

I am convinced that good film provides a mirror of sorts for the audience—a connection to complex emotions, interpersonal struggle, human joy, and sacrifice, among others. It can spark dialogue, anger, and spur someone to want to learn more about a given subject. We are opened up to new, expansive worlds and untapped sensations, urges, and feelings, through cinema.

I think I am most fascinated and interested in the “world” that good films create. When I write a film, I am invested in the transferring of that world to the reader, and eventually to the viewer. I believe this is the true magic of cinema, and the reason that Malcolm X remains one of my favorite films. It transported me to its world and held me there way beyond my leaving the movie theater.

Can you tell us about your creative process with filmmaking?  For example, do you try to stick to your script as much as possible when in the filming stage, or do you let things evolve if actors want to take the story in a different direction?

I am all about story and character. From the beginning of the script writing stage, I am fully invested in the creation of a distinct world, a captivating story, and the development of unforgettable characters. I don’t stick religiously to the script when rehearsing with actors and filming. Actors are incredibly awesome people who many times bring innovative, riveting ideas to their understanding of a character. As a director, I am open to their interpretations and ideas, as long as it remains within the bounds of my overall vision for the story.

I am open to some improv by actors and have actually gotten some of my best footage and scenes when an actor did something unexpected or when I left the camera running and caught an actor off-guard in their own “world.” I think in any creative process, one must be open and not rigid when it comes to making their art reality.

I also like to employ other artistic mediums when conceiving of the world and story I’m tying to tell. I look at photography, paintings, listen to music that the character might listen to, watch other films that fall within that same genre of the film I’m making, and really try to get a visual-audio feel for my story.

Any upcoming projects you would like to share with us?

Aside from directing the feature-length version of Salaam, I am deeply interested in writing and directing a period drama that intertwines an explosive love story with suspense and a powerful piece of black history. I can’t really go into specifics but I’ve always been a history buff and think about the premise for the film every day.

Other interests include adapting a fiction novel into a film. I have a few in mind. As a writer and fiction aficionado, this has always been an aspiration of mine.

Beside film-making, I write poems. I just completed a chapbook of poems entitled, In veins of fallen leaves. For more info or to order it from my blog, visit this site.

Finally, what does living unchained mean to you?

Living Unchained is all about creating, loving, and living the way you want to. It’s about trusting your intuition and attempting not to doubt yourself in the process. It’s about dancing in your bedroom and singing into a pencil as your microphone. It’s about being honest even when you fear the repercussions. It’s about the frustration and rage that can be funneled into growth and art. It’s about crying and not repressing emotions. It’s about the complexities of living the life you want to—the joy, pain, and struggle that comes with that.

Nijla has also written and directed numerous film and video projects.  She is currently working on a documentary entitled BACK UP! Concrete Diaries, that explores how women deal with street harassment. For more information on her films and production company visit her website.

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