David G. Hughes on Nijla Mu’min’s ‘Jinn’ (2018)
While many animals adorn sophisticated mechanisms of environmental camouflage, blending into their habitat to avoid predators, the zebra stands out on the desert plains with its striking black and white coat. Yet evolution has not been unkind to these creatures; the uniform features of a zebra herd do, in fact, protect them by preventing co-ordinated strategies from lioness hunters — they cannot single out a zebra to attack. Mark a zebra with a distinguishing feature, and watch it fall prey.
I assume a similar phenomenon is occurring with the quite astonishing praise that Nijla Mumin’s new feature film Jinn is receiving, a Kickstarter funded film that describes itself as “A Narrative About Identity, Islam and First Love.” Here is an incompetent, supremely mawkish, and reactionary film obsessed with a vapid form of identitarian politics, doing its outrageous best to stand on a pedestal and have the gall to act like it speaks on behalf of an entire people. Thus it protects itself with untouchable ‘good intentions’ and attacks against it become difficult, even political; you are attacking a group, a disenfranchised one at that, and the individual disappears.
The usual critics on the hunt have, therefore, averted their attacks. Variety calls it “phenomenal”, suggesting that “cinema is better” with this film in existence as if cinema needed such putrid medicine. RogerEbert.com gave it three and a half stars, for reasons never quite clear or justified. The Hollywood Reporter had to concede the films glaring demerits, but with the caveat it is “everything we should be seeing more of”. This is quite disingenuous from a community who came out of the screening I attended visibly and palpably exasperated, an inconvenient fact considering that, hypothetically, Jinn had all the right politics.
This myth needs busting. There is something distinctly irksome about Jinn. Despite its pleasant veneer of sunlit paradise and innocent hula-hooping, underneath rests latent content of such disagreeable naïveté that it defies comprehension. The tone of Nu’min’s film is like that of a PC moralist delivering a tasteless and ham-fisted lecture on cultural tolerance and consent classes (a ridiculous sex scene emphasises verbal consent), all the while, paradoxically, embracing conservative puritanical religious dogmas. Whereas similarly Christian examples such as God’s Not Dead (2014) and God’s Not Dead 2 (2016) get rightly panned for the anti-art horror show that they are, Jinn is being hailed as “a new voice with a bold vision.”
The story is a coming of age drama about a 17-year-old African American girl, Summer (Zoe Renee), who must negotiate her burgeoning interest in Islam (a result of parental enforcement) and her contradictory affinity for millennial expression – dance and insta-nudes. Do not let the well intentioned identity politics of Jinn fool you: this is a wholly reactionary, chauvinistic film that proudly shames female sexuality and promotes the heroic ideal of ascetic patriarchal male figures. The Mother’s (played admirably by Luke Cage’s Simone Missick), transition to Islam, for example, is unambiguously portrayed as an authoritative substitute for the absent husband. For Summer, the male love interest is a quiet but sternly devout Muslim boy (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). We are supposed to find structural comfort in his stoic reserve, but he is perhaps the most boring screen presence ever known to film Romance, the characters sole ‘quirk’ being his fondness for pizza. Female sexuality in Jinn is chaste, fragile, in need of male protection. This is an anti-sex film craving order.
No friend of female emancipation, Jinn is no friend of Islam either. It reduces an ancient and complex religion to touristic vibes: “the lights, the smell, the prayer,” the Mother swoons. The camera lovingly shoots Oriental fabrics, textures and foods. And the cosmic truths, the philosophy? Barely mentioned and it hardly matters. The sentiment of reconciliation between East and West at the heart of the narrative is nice, but it is based on a sham. The resolution is thus: dance provocatively, but wear the headscarf! This is so fantastical, so incoherent, that one can only regard its superficiality and ignorance as close to dangerous, Orientalist in its perception of difference. Taking its politics and spirituality a la carte, this sort of fanciful tourism deserves no respect.
More than the politics, the filmmaking is rotten. Here is a film that declares “love is boundless”, with dialogue that reads, “intolerance isn’t cool”. Where are our tastemakers? The guardians of our arts? Nowhere to be seen. Where are the feminist ripostes to this deeply patriarchal film? Jinn has nothing meaningful to say about anything. We do art a disservice when we engage in a “soft bigotry of low expectations”, suggesting that those that the film is ostensibly about — American Muslims — will get much of it either. They, as cinema goers, deserve better.
It was perhaps inevitable that a film like Jinn should come along, a sort of insufferable, politically correct cinema about cross-cultural identity being asserted through poetry and dance. It is devoid of personality and artistic merit, but is praised for its political intent nonetheless. This is indeed a strange film, a modern-day alliance between liberal do-gooding and intolerant shaming, conservative dogma and New Left rhetoric. Since when was artistic redundancy irrelevant as long as the intentions are, ostensibly, admirable?
Screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival