"I am a guerilla filmmaker at heart, ready to make art by any means": filmmaker Nijla Mu'min shares her #My1stFilm story
Oakland can be beautiful at night. A melange of orange streetlights, wet air, and stillness. I shot my first short film there. I had no formal training, and no example to follow. That was 2006. I was a junior at UC Berkeley and my dreams of becoming a director were just forming.
The story lived just outside my window. On nights, young black men would stand on the corner talking to one another, sometimes very passionately for long periods of time. I would sometimes look down, out of my window, at them, wondering what they were talking about. Wondering about their lives. I knew that most people would assume these men were up to to no good. Maybe they were, but I wasn’t interested in that narrative. Instead, I wanted to tell a story about a black woman’s glances out of a window, and down onto a street corner where a man stands, sometimes engaged in conversations with a friend. As she watches him, her curiosity about him grows. She starts to feel close to him. She wants to know him beyond the glass. There are two physical worlds in this film — her room and his corner until they collide. My script was free-form poetry, part narrative, with scene headings and voiceovers that allowed me to explore my character’s mind. Voiceovers, used sparingly and effectively, would continue to be a staple of my storytelling in future short films, and in my feature film.
I knew I would write, direct, and operate the camera during the shoot. From my background in 35mm film photography, I understood f-stops, aperture, basic framing, shutter speed, light, and tripods. I applied this knowledge to the camera I rented from the Bay Area Video Coalition. I remember the first time I held the camera in my hands, and how heavy it was as I touched the contours of its body. It made me feel so excited.
I recruited my close friends at UC Berkeley to take part in a multi-day shoot around North Oakland, where I lived on the corner of MLK and 52nd. One of my best friends, Janine, who also happened to be my roommate at the time, was a talented singer and actress (I once saw her do an impersonation of Denzel Washington from Training Day and it blew my mind) and she played the lead role of Taja, a shy, emotionally-guarded woman seeking touch. Acting opposite her was a classmate named Gregg who I felt embodied the pensive nature of the man on the street corner. His good-humored friend on the corner was played by none other than Yahya Abdul Mateen II (The Get Down, Aquaman) whose sheer talent and personification of Bay Area language and lingo always impressed me. I knew then that he would go on to grace sets and stages, which he did. Aside from my actors, and one other friend who held the boom pole as I shot the film, there was no other crew.
We shot scenes in my apartment, on the street we lived, on MLK, during the day and night. I wanted to capture the Oakland I lived in — a place of leftover exhaust fumes from sideshows, of fresh peach cobbler in the window of It’s All Good Bakery as I walked by, and the metallic echo of BART trains flying by overhead. I remember filming b-roll on my street during the day when a male neighbor called out to me: “Bitch, put that camera down!” It caught me off guard because up until that point, I’d always felt pretty welcome and free in that neighborhood. This was when I learned that the presence of cameras, especially in marginalized communities, could be viewed as intrusive and tied to some type of surveillance. To reverse that stigma, and use the camera as a tool of empowerment is something that black filmmakers and filmmakers of color have been doing for decades. I slowly lowered the camera and walked back to my apartment, feeling hurt by the exchange, but also understanding the weight and risks of what I was undertaking.
Soon, we were out there, at night with the bulky mini-DV camera, a boom pole, and ourselves. I was holding the camera, and following Taja as she searched for a soul mate just out of reach. I was shooting a stacked two-shot profile of Yahya and Gregg before I even knew the terminology for it. In the scene, Gregg speaks of how much he misses his grandmother and the sweet potatoes she used to cook. I wanted to reverse whatever narrative was attached to black men standing on this corner. To show that they could feel, miss a grandmother, and just be there, and be people, was important to me. Something in me just knew to adjust the camera for the nighttime light, and frame my lead actress in a close-up as she stands on the corner, searching. I think we are trained by the movies, throughout our lives. We are educated in a visual language that we sometimes don’t know exists in our minds and bodies.
My favorite scenes of this film were the final ones we shot at the BART station and in the BART train. They still evoke some emotion in me, even with all the freeze-frame editing, mistakes, and pixelated camera quality. I understand, from watching these scenes, how I got where I am today, and what I am interested in as a filmmaker. Taja gets on the BART, and sits down. In front of her, sits Gregg from the corner, nodding his head to music in his earphones. She glances at the back of him, and remembers something about his body. She knows it’s him, and she smiles in this warm, intimate way. When the train stops and he gets off, she wonders if she should get off as well, and at the last moment, she does.
She follows him up the BART platform stairs and taps him on his shoulder. He turns around, and the movie ends. This is one of the most exciting moments of this film. I wanted the audience to wonder- what would happen between these two people who are otherwise strangers, but in this woman’s mind, something more? Would they talk, go on a date, would he walk away from her? I always imagined they’d go to Lake Merritt and laugh before kissing. Plausibility be damned. I’m a romantic at heart and this was my first short film. The magic of cinema is imagination. I would learn later that a story, well-told, can make people believe.
When it was all over, I thanked my cast and crew member and quickly found an editor to cut together the footage: Sedrick the MC, a Bay Area rapper. And when I watched the first cut, I knew I was in love with the cuts, and the music, and the intentionality of image-making. I also knew I had to learn to edit, which I did, so I could further craft a story the way he did mine. He added music that brought out a soft and gritty texture to the film, and we called the movie Oakland.
I was proud of this film and wanted my friends to see it. I held a screening in my room at our house — the same place we filmed in. I invited folks. On the night of the screening, the room was full of my classmates, sorors, and friends, some sitting on my bed, watching my computer or television, I honestly can’t remember. They responded with feedback, observations, and were curious about the ending, which I wanted. Later, I would show the film to other friends including Ryan Coogler, who would go on to transform this very medium.
This was the first time I screened a film, and it happened in my room in North Oakland, before the city was buried in new condos. This was a time where everything seemed possible to me. When I held that camera on that North Oakland street corner at 10pm, I knew I was supposed to be there. When a police car drove by, I felt like a rebel because there was something militant about a black woman holding a camera on an Oakland street corner, rendering images of people who had too long been deemed invisible.
I like to remember this time, not because I believe I made a masterpiece, but because it reminds me why I continue on this path despite the struggle, the rejection, and the pain. I am a guerilla filmmaker at heart, ready to make art by any means. I don’t wait to be told I can do anything. I get a thrill from visual subversion, from natural light on brown skin, from music and image, from love. This was the beginning of something I cannot let go of. Something that haunts me beautifully at night, never leaving me alone. This was my first time.
Nijla Mu'min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. Named one of 25 New Faces of Independent Film by Filmmaker Magazine for 2017, she tells stories about black girls and women who find themselves between worlds and identities. Her short films have screened at festivals across the country. Her filmmaking and screenwriting have been recognized by the Sundance Institute, IFP, Film Independent, and the Princess Grace Foundation. In 2011, she worked as a Production Assistant on Ava DuVernay’s film, Middle of Nowhere. In 2017, she directed her first feature film, Jinn, starring Zoe Renee and Simone Missick (Netflix’s Luke Cage), which will premiere in competition at SXSW Film Festival in 2018. Her short film Dream was recently acquired by Issa Rae Productions (Insecure, HBO) for online streaming. She is a 2013 dual-degree graduate of CalArts MFA Film Directing and Writing Programs. Her writing appears in VICE, Shadow and Act, The East Bay Express, and The Los Angeles Times.