Growing up in a South Asian Muslim family in Detroit, filmmaker Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad (It’s a Mismatch and Alliance) used to hear folklore about jinns — supernatural creatures with roots in Islamic and Arab folklore. Ahmad says those stories helped inspire the plot of his new thriller Jinn, which set to hit theaters this Friday.
In the movie, Shawn (Dominic Rains) is an automotive designer who is happily married to his wife Jasmine (Serinda Swan). Everything changes after he receives a cryptic message about a curse that has followed his family for generations. As the threats become larger, Shawn takes on the help of a mysterious duo, Gabriel (Ray Park) and Father Westhoff (William Atherton), and a mental patient (Faran Tahir) who claims to have answers. Shawn courageously embarks on a path to save his family and confront the ancient evil forces that are hunting him.
We recently had a chance to ask Ahmad about the film, his Detroit roots, and what it meant to direct a film set in his often misunderstood home city.
For those not familiar with jinns and the mythology that surrounds them can you describe it a little bit? What do jinns mean to you?
Jinn are supposedly a third race of beings that have lived on this planet even before mankind existed. Almost two billion people from India to China to Africa believe in the Jinn.Almost two billion people from India to China to Africa believe in the Jinn. They are very similar to man in that they have free will, however they have powers that we would consider supernatural. To the rest of the world, most of the things that go “bump in the night” are attributed to the Jinn.
Did your family tell you stories about jinns during your childhood? Can you share one?
My mom used to tell me “If you don’t eat your veggies, the Jinn is going to come out of the woods and get you.” When I was nine that scared the heck out of me but I remember thinking, “How come no one has made a movie on the Jinns?” Well now someone has. 😉
You got your start directing music videos for artists as diverse as Brandy and Fatboy Slim. What was the hardest thing about making your first feature film?
The hardest thing about making a feature film is always trying to get the most out of the finite resources and time you have. I think that never changes no matter how large of a budget you have.
This film takes place in the Detroit metro area, where you grew up. Is that why you decided to film there?
Absolutely. We believe in the state and the city of Detroit and want to give back as much as we can. It’s also where I was born and raised, and I feel a deep connection with Michigan.
I was also struck by the fact that the film’s red carpet premiere will be in Detroit — rather than NY or LA. Could you tell us more about why you decided to debut in your hometown?
We believe in Detroit and Michigan. If we didn’t do our premiere here, it would be hypocritical.
What do you think of the way Detroit has been portrayed in the media lately?
Detroit is given a bad rap because it’s easier to tell that part of the story. We don’t necessarily believe in that story and have chosen to show the Detroit that we know…which is beautiful and full of history, magic and wonder. All the same ingredients you need for a good movie backdrop as well!
It’s also really cool — and very Detroit — that Dominic Rains plays an automotive designer in the film. What kind of research into the auto industry did you do before making the film?
We made a car! We didn’t need much research to develop the Firebreather. As a native Michigander and Detroiter, we live, breathe and eat cars already.As a native Michigander and Detroiter, we live, breathe and eat cars already. As far as the design goes, I’ve been kicking the concept around in my head for a long time… I’ve always been a huge fan of the Firebird and Trans Am. From Smokey and the Bandit all the way up to Knight Rider. As far as the fabrication goes, the Firebreather was forged incredibly well by Classic Design Concept (CDC).
Tell us more about the Firebreather car that you designed for the movie. Can you talk about that experience and the vision you had in mind for it?
The vision was to do something that has never been done before. The Firebreather represents that…the first time you can walk out of a theatre and buy the car you saw in the movie…not as a prop, but as a real 600hp supercar. It’s really a symbol of the thinking we want to foster in Detroit…along with doing it over and over again.
Let’s talk about your cast. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the following names?
Dominic Rains – Deep
Serinda Swan – Eyes
Ray Park – Awesome
William Atherton – Presence
Faran Tahir – Power
Michigan, of course, has a sizable Muslim and Arab population. Did you talk to any members of the community about the mythology surrounding jinns while coming up with the concept of the film?
Absolutely! Hundreds! The film you will see is an authentic portrayal of the collective stories from around the world of numerous people, cultures and nationalities.
How has being an American-born South Asian influenced your journey in the film industry? Has it made it easier/harder?
I think this business is hard no matter what background you’re from. In some ways, not having the traditional connections can slow you down…in other ways, it gives you a new and fresh point of view that can make you stand out as well.
There haven’t been many South Asian characters in horror movies — though Dileep Rao’s Rham Jas in Drag Me to Hell comes to mind. What do you think of the way South Asians have been portrayed in the horror genre?
Well I think it’s been the same across all genres…South Asians are usually the convenience store owner, the terrorist or the comedy relief. We’re choosing to change that up a bit.
What, in your opinion, is the one horror film that everyone should see?
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Note: The Aerogram is giving away 5 Jinn prize packs that contain an official poster, t-shirt and more. Find out how you can enter here.
Priya Arora is a graduate student at New York University studying human development and social intervention with a research focus on mental health in LGBTQ youths. Born and raised in California, Priya has found a home in New York and will be attending Columbia University this fall to become a licensed mental health counselor. Follow her on Twitter at @thepriyaarora.