When Bruce Francis Cole went to SXSW in 2018, he didn’t know what to expect. The first screening of “Jinn,” on which he served as cinematographer, was warmly received at the State on Congress, a jewel box of a theater where Nijla Mu’min’s coming-of-age tale about a young Muslim woman (Zoe Renee) forced to reckon with her identity as her mother (Simone Missick) undergoes a spiritual reawakening of her own, but it was the second screening that took his breath away, at one of the biggest houses inside the Alamo Drafthouse multiplex on South Lamar where it was playing side by side with the Jennifer Lawrence starrer “Red Sparrow.”
“This is a very small film that we made about characters that we don’t really get to see every day, so one of the things that was so powerful for me was for the first time seeing a story that was so personal and so small projected on such a large screen,” says Cole, who admits a few tears may have been shed. “Seeing it projected the same way as ‘Dark Knight’ or any other huge Hollywood film is projected on a giant screen in a theater, it makes a story like this that much more valid.”
Audiences in New York will finally get an opportunity to have that big-screen experience for themselves when “Jinn” begins a weeklong run at the BAMCinematek starting this Friday, a remarkable feat for a film that’s been available on VOD and iTunes since last December, but also an acknowledgement of a drama that has never felt less than immediate in no small part to the soulfulness of the images Mu’min and Cole collaborated on, channeling the restlessness of a teenager within the carefully composed framing that outlines the world she feels confined inside and full of vibrant colors that reflect her passion that’s waiting to burst out and be put towards something powerful.
As it happens, you might be tempted to describe “Solace,” the other film of Cole’s to debut last year on the festival circuit and worthy of discovery (now on iTunes), in similar terms, but it speaks to the desire to show that there is no monolithic experience for young African-American women that Tchaiko Omawale’s compelling study of a teen named Sole (Hope Olaide Wilson) caught in the grips of an eating disorder after losing her father and has trouble adjusting to living with her relatives is wildly different. Corralling chaos to find the grace notes inside, Cole is able to viscerally capture clearing a path out of a mental fog as Sole’s world is turned upside down and Omawale, eager to flip audience’s synapses just as much, creates a kaleidoscopic portrait that’s hard to shake.
Just one of these films would make Cole a cinematographer to keep an eye on, but the range and dynamism shown in both was one of last year’s major revelations along with “Jinn” and “Solace” in and of themselves, and we recently caught up with him to talk about the resourcefulness required to make such distinctive films without compromise or with much of a budget, working with such exciting new filmmakers as Mu’min and Omawale, and how his experience studying classical painting comes in handy behind the camera.
“Solace” came about through a relationship I had with a friend of mine named Tchaiko Omawale. For years, we had both been bouncing back and forth from New York to Los Angeles, but originally, we met at BAM in New York probably in the early aughts and we talked a lot about making films. The years had passed and finally we were both living in Los Angeles and at the time, neither one of us had work that we were really, really inspired by, and we had no money, but we always had dreams of making the kind of films we wanted to make, so we met up and we basically said to each other, “Okay, let’s set a deadline for ourselves. We want to shoot a film by this summer.” And [Tchaiko] said, “We have a script. Let’s see how much money we can raise from now until the summer. And no matter what, no matter how much money we have, that’s what we’ll make the movie for.”
We knew that by the end of the day, as long as we had a camera and people that were invested in making the movie — because you’re in a city like Los Angeles because there’s so much talent that just wants to be a part of making art and making something good — we’d have something. We didn’t know what it would be, but something would fill this void that she and I had been missing, which is a coming-of-age story that represented us from our perspective as opposed to a Hollywood portrayal of young black kids and queer kids and kids that are on the margins of society moving through space. We knew that this is something that’s very limited in terms of its representation in cinema, especially in the current day, so we made that film and from that film, I think the buzz got going that we were making a film of that age group, so I started to get some phone calls from some other people saying that they were interested in doing similar projects in terms of budget. That’s what led Nijla to give me a buzz about “Jinn.”
With Nijla, it was a similar situation in terms of the money that was there in the beginning, and “Solace” was still in post, trying to figure its way through [because] Tchaiko was looking for something very special with the editing and she was having a little bit of bumpy road trying to communicate what she was looking for. Eventually, she found someone who was a perfect fit, but at the time, it was being held up in post, so I embarked on “Jinn.”Tthere got to be a point right before we went into production where I feel like we ended up with about the same amount of money we had for “Solace,” but because of a lot of the legwork that was done beforehand and a lot of support Nijla and Avril [Speaks, the producer] got beforehand — we had the entire team, but were just lacking a little bit of funding, it didn’t matter. We just had to figure out how we were going to keep the film together as we kept pushing forward the production.
As we were shooting, the money started to trickle in a little bit more and like “Solace,” it struggled, but unlike “Solace,” it picked up more and more attraction as it went along. We were able to push through the post and we premiered at SXSW, that allowed there to be a lot of energy that continued to stay around the project. Once it won the award at SXSW, I realize now a little bit how the industry works in terms of getting approval. Once you get approval by one audience, there’s so many other audiences that are open and willing to check out the project and also give its approval, so I feel that made it a lot easier for the rollout of “Jinn.”
When these are stories of young women, was it intimidating to come to that as a man?
Yes, they are stories and films that revolve around female characters and obviously, I leaned on Nijla and Tchaiko’s own experience and visions of being a young black woman, but the even larger picture around them is that they’re these adolescent African-American characters living on the margins of society, even within their own cultures, and that was what allowed me to find my own voice within it because I always say that “Solace” was an afropunk film. We didn’t reference it that much [in the actual film], but one of the films that was an inspiration was James Spooner’s film that he shot with Bradford Young years ago called “White Lies, Black Sheep,” and when we originally set out, we were just hoping to make a rebellious film like that that talked about being young and black, within the black culture, but not necessarily within the margins of the black culture.The other place that allowed me to really, really connect with both films is that I feel like the energy I had making “Solace” was [from] making a film for my sister and then the energy I had going into “Jinn” was [from] making a film for her daughter, my niece. I felt like I was speaking for them through making each of the films, and I thought if I can do right by my sister and I can do right by my niece — and obviously if I can just do right by Nijla and Tchaiko and be open to their perspective on the world — then I was in total communication and in sync with the process.
I felt that in quite a physical way since the camera movement in both films is so expressive – they both convey restlessness, but in entirely opposite ways since “Solace” has a jittery, handheld feeling where it’s like just trying to keep a grip on things whereas in “Jinn,” it’s often very controlled with the expectation that things will ultimately combust from trying to keep a certain pose. How did you figure out the visual language?
Yeah, out of all my years of shooting, I probably learned the most off of “Solace” because it was the most difficult subject matter. Eating disorders, mental health, they’re very, very hard topics to talk about because they’re so personal, and in the end, Tchaiko and I spent a lot of time going through each scene and she would tell me what the scene was about for her and we would come up with one adjective that would describe it because if we came up with one adjective, it wouldn’t matter what either one of us felt about drug abuse or mental disorders or whatever [it was] – if we just found one adjective, we could all interpret that adjective however we wanted. The word would evoke a visual element — like if you were to say the word “safe,” [we could ask ourselves] what kind of colors come to mind when you think of ‘safe’?” What kinds of movements do you feel creates safety for you? Is a hug safety for you? Or does a hug bring you traumatic thoughts?” I didn’t necessarily relate to any eating disorder, but I had other traumas in my life that I was able to attach those adjectives and a lot of the camerawork for “Solace” was built around our interpretation of disorders and how each one of us were able to interpret those disorders in our own lives.
In “Jinn,” it was a little bit opposite. Nijla brought most of her experiences as a young Muslim black girl in Oakland into this space, so a lot of the shot designs were designed from her experience and I came into add to it as opposed to with “Solace” [where] we built it together. The thing I brought to “Jinn” was I wanted it to be free as much as possible because it was a story dealing with youth and coming off of “Solace,” where we were all about being totally rebellious, I wanted to make sure we didn’t get trapped into making something that was so clean that it didn’t necessarily represent the rebellious side of things and it would still feel very youthful. That’s why you have this duality where it’s very controlled and we use tripods a lot, but then as Summer [experiences] rebellion, we definitely break into more handheld. There’s a dance scene near the end, which is a total representation of her rebelliousness at that point, which is one of my favorite scenes, where the camera and Summer’s perspective become one. So in both [films], the visual language was very tethered to the emotions of the character.
Nijla told me for “Jinn” you spent a lot of time talking about darkness. What was it like talking about creating a color palette around that?
Yeah, we were big fans of filmmakers like Andrea Arnold and her cinematographer Robbie Ryan, so a lot of times when you look at those films that they’ve created together, there’s a lot of play with natural lighting and not necessarily shadows, but the shadow side of natural lighting. We really wanted it to feel as natural as possible and one of those ways that you do that is you allow for darkness to be dark and we really wanted to play with this underexposed shadow-side of the way teens naturally feel. It also played into the duality of Summer’s character in the film in that there is a light and there is a darkness and the darkness is not necessarily a bad thing. In the title “Jinn” — for people that know of the Islamic reference, it’s a little bit of a tricky word because Jinn is this freeform spirit that it isn’t necessarily in the light or the darkness of Islam in my understanding, so it’s a little bit of a risky spirit and that was one of the things that we really were adamant about playing with, which was not necessarily the darkness in terms of spirit, but the shadow side of life and how there can be beauty within those shadows.
I’ve read you initially studied to be a classical painter. Has that influenced how you approach light? And what ultimately turned your attention towards the camera?
I went to a magnet school for visual arts, but when it came time to apply to college, I didn’t know what [specifically] I wanted to go to school for, so I ended up enrolling in a film program at North Carolina. I didn’t really know too much about film, other than it was a program that they were offering and that I liked movies. I had no idea about cinematography, but because it was a conservatory, in order for me to get accepted into the program to complete my bachelor’s [degree], the only program they would allow me to finish in would be cinematography, so I was pushed into that program, but once I decided this would be my path, I’ll never forget the first book I read in the library was Ansel Adams. Once I understood the art of the Zone System and how it translates into photography, that language translated very fluently to me because of my training in classical painting and so throughout the years, I’ve used my knowledge of people like Caravaggio and Rembrandt and all these classical painters that have really painted what was in front of them as opposed to a lot of the modern and postmodern art, which was a little bit more expressive.
I learned about lighting through painting, but then I learned about expression through postmodern art and pop art, especially once I studied Basquiat and how that related to me as a person and not necessarily as an artist. As a black man moving in modern day America during the ‘80s and graffiti and hip-hop and all that – he helped me understand that I had a personal voice and that I had to figure out what that voice was, which again is what led me to wanting to make films like “Jinn” and “Solace” because I felt like I could be a great cinematographer and shoot films that appealed to so many different audiences, but I really wanted to find something that related to exactly who I was. “Jinn” and “Solace” were exactly those films that allowed me to express my total freedom of all sides of my personality.
With indie films where time is a luxury, you manage to have such evocative lighting. Is there any trick to it?
I’m a big fan of the French New Wave cinema and early American independent cinema from the ‘70s into the ‘90s, and Ni’jila is as well, so a lot of the lighting [in “Jinn”] comes from [that style], which is accenting what’s already there, so you don’t have to spend as much time recreating something that God has already given you. One of the benefits of being on an independent project and having a short amount of days to complete it is that you only have about an hour to shoot, so you can shoot it naturally within that hour, whereas if you’re on a big budget film, you’re shooting that thing that takes place in an hour over the course of a day and you’re struggling the entire time to make it look natural as the day’s changing, with actors going to their trailers in between takes and you have to use all these more artificial lighting to keep it consistent. So I knew when you’re shooting really fast, you’re able to capture these moments that it takes Hollywood so much time to capture because you’re able to actually work with what the universe is naturally giving you. We kept the lighting that we did do very simple and really tried to utilize color as much as possible.
One of my favorite scenes in “Jinn” is such a clear demonstration of that, when you follow Summer’s mother Jade, played by Simone Missick, into the newsroom that’s bathed in red light as she’s about to wear her hijab on camera for the first time, and as a weatherperson, she’s naturally placed against a green screen, which acts as if she’s giving herself the green light. How did that scene come about?
That’s funny because the TV studio was a very tricky environment and we had very limited means at this point. It was one of the first days of shooting, so it came out of practicality because we had this soundstage that we had to turn into a studio, but we didn’t have all this TV equipment and all this other technological props to put into the frame to make it feel like a studio, so we had to rely on symbols that we associate with a news station. What I latched onto was this idea of constantly being live, so I made a quick decision to use the color red to bathe the newsroom just outside of what’s on camera [where] we would associate that with this idea of breaking news [because] if you’re ever at a TV studio when the red light goes on, everybody knows to keep things on a hush because you’re recording live. Then the color green was chosen obviously because it’s green screen, but it was really tricky because when we were on set, she comes in [wearing] green against a green screen, so it’s like “Oh no, this is not going to work.” But we went with it because again, we wanted the duality of the color scheme to represent Simone’s character standing out against what is within the news studio, which is this color red, and we wanted to subtly and symbolically play against color contrasts of one lone figure in this world of breaking news, but not necessarily open to the truth that’s within their own studio.
It’s interesting because you know I finished “Solace” earlier, but it took a long time for it to reach the public — in fact, it came out after “Jinn,” but I would not have been able to have provided what I provided on “Jinn” had I not learned what I learned on “Solace.” Then what I learned from “Jinn” is the art of making your film after the film is made, [because] I really saw the producer Avril Speaks and Nijla just push the film in a way I had never been a part of. SXSW was really my first film festival and it’s so powerful and so beautiful when you see your art really communicating with people. It’s one thing if you’re watching it with an audience that watches films all the time, but when you’re watching it with the public and they’re responding the same way the public responds on the opposite side of the United States or even the world, then you know you all have done your job, and a couple weeks ago, I was finally got my niece, who I said I made the film for, to sit down and braid my hair and while she was braiding my hair, I said, “I know you don’t really know a lot about indie films, but why don’t you just watch the film that I made?” And I kid you not, every single moment where you’d get a reaction from the audience at each festival and at some of the screenings I went to with the public, she responded to exactly the same.
So it’s just been amazing to watch a film have life and still have life, even now as I’m working on my next feature. I had the producer come up to me [the other day] and say, “Hey, did you know your film’s playing at BAM?” And I’m like “Yeah…” And she’s like, “Are you going to go see it?” I’m like, “We’re shooting!” And she’s like, “You should really make time to go see it.” And I’m like, “We’re shooting!” (laughs) But it’s just been exciting knowing that’s the beauty of feature films and filmmaking is that even when it’s finished, it’s never finished. It’s always out there in the ethos doing what it’s going to do and if you make a film that emotionally touches people and especially represents people from a marginalized community, that it will always be there to pick up and help a community grow, heal, learn. Even when you’re not working or even when you’re working on something else, you hope to then give to the community again. That’s the beauty about it is just knowing it will always have a life.