What mermaids wish you knew: Nijla Mumin discusses fantasy and folklore in Deluge Wednesday 17 December, 2014

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In the spirit of magical realist films like “Eve’s Bayou,” Nijla Mumin’s “Deluge” blends coming of age drama and fantasy to explore traumatic memories. In a post BP oil spill New Orleans, 15-year old Tiana witnesses the mass drowning of her friends. After struggling with the decision not to jump in, she must decide if […]



In the spirit of magical realist films like “Eve’s Bayou,” Nijla Mumin’s “Deluge” blends coming of age drama and fantasy to explore traumatic memories. In a post BP oil spill New Orleans, 15-year old Tiana witnesses the mass drowning of her friends. After struggling with the decision not to jump in, she must decide if she will join the order of black mermaids who have sworn to protect the waters where her friends rest. The film is partly inspired by the 2010 tragic drowning of six black teens in a Shreveport, Louisiana sinkhole. None of them could swim.

In the world of Deluge mermaids are not simply sirens that lure men to sea. They are among many symbols in the film that cause us to rethink where reality ends and fantasy begins in the lives of Tiana and her friends, as well as our own.

Have you always been fascinated with water?

I’ve always loved being in and around water, but I wouldn’t call myself a master swimmer. I actually taught myself how to swim as a young girl because I wanted to be able to go into the deeper part of the swimming pool. I see this film as an element of my fascination and fear of water. I’ve definitely had close calls in bodies of water, and there’s a split second feeling, or thought, that the water could take me over. I also spoke with my father, who learned to swim by being pushed into a deep water hole when he was growing up in Louisiana. There was a sense of danger and fear, and also youthful excitement and fun. I wanted to explore that in relation to this film.

Visually, the film is beautiful. I particularly love the scene with Michole Briana White walking meditatively in that beautiful billowing blue dress. Can you share your thoughts on the visual considerations that went into the film?

Since the film is about water and Tiana’s relationship to it, we definitely wanted to capture a sort of fluidity in the framing and visual aesthetic. We wanted to mirror the movements of water, in camera movement, in Tiana’s emotions, and in the color palette. I wanted to explore the different stages and moods that Tiana experiences throughout her day, including the risk and excitement of teenage discovery coupled with this body of water, as well as the trauma and transformation that Tiana undergoes after the drowning, where the colors become bluer and greener and Tiana is welcomed into a different world that is also very much a part of the world she lives in.

This film was partly inspired by a truly tragic event, the 2010 drowning of six black teens in a Shreveport, Louisiana sinkhole. Why do you think their deaths resonated with you so deeply?

It resonated with me for many reasons, but one of the main reasons was a quote from a woman who was at the river that day and watched the teens drown. She said: “None of us could swim. They were yelling ‘help me, help me. Somebody please help me.’ It was nothing I could do but watch them drown one by one.” The feeling of helplessness, and also of witness, and of the ways that this image would stay with this woman for the rest of her life, impacted me. I was also interested in the dialogue that began to form about black people’s relationships to water, and the low rates of swimming retention in black youth, which is informed by many social factors- access to bodies of water being one of them.


This quote also helped inform the development of Tiana as she witnesses the drowning of her close friends. I was really interested in retracing the prior moments of the drowning, and exploring the teens’ lives up to that point. I wondered what they ate for breakfast, what their relationships with their parents were like, and if any of them had a crush or first love at the time of their death. These kinds of details are often lost when we read news reports about tragedies like this. We experience the tragedy in a very public way but the intimate details of the people involved, aren’t mentioned. These details make us human and I wanted to make a human portrait of these teens and the trauma they encountered.

From depictions of the vertical tombs, to the fried seafood, to the LSU t-shirt Tiana’s friend wears, you clearly wanted to drive home the fact that this was taking place in New Orleans. Is there anything else you can share about why New Orleans was such a fitting setting?

I was determined to shoot the film in New Orleans after I made a preliminary scouting trip to the city while in grad film school. The air was wet, tiny microclimates emitted rain and thunder then disappeared quickly, and a mood of mystery and sensuality took over me. I was fascinated and haunted by the history of that landmass in relation to water- the fact that many parts are below sea level, as well as the ever-present threat of hurricanes as life and love persisted amidst it all. The whole city felt like water, and evoked so many moods in me.

What impression did the BP oil spill make on you when it came to “Deluge”?  This film also makes reference to black bodies drowning during the slave trade. Can you tell us about your decision to have the mermaids reference that?  

In addition to the true story of the mass drowning, the film is also based on a poem that I wrote, entitled “Daughters of The Deluge: Black Mermaids Face Disaster” which explores an order of black mermaids whose existence becomes threatened when the BP Oil Spill occurs and oil seeps in the water they’ve called home since the Middle Passage. In my origin story, these black mermaids were born from the souls of Africans who were thrown or jumped overboard slave ships during the The Middle Passage, particularly the Zong ship. Their purpose is to protect the souls and memories of these people, by guarding their bones and erecting sea tombs. They also protect the souls of drowning victims from more current tragedies, including those from Hurricane Katrina. The BP Oil spill was a massive threat to the existence of the black mermaids, and they were coming aboveground to seek allies and assistance. That is how they come into contact with Tiana. They believe she belongs with them after the trauma she has witnessed.

What do mermaids represent to you?

In the scope of this film, black mermaids represent our connection to the ocean and to our Diasporic lineage. I wasn’t interested in the popular conception of mermaids luring men into the sea. I wanted to reimagine this mythology and contribute an element of folklore to black filmmaking, which is something that isn’t always seen or encouraged.
Can we expect the film to be expanded into a feature? What are things you would like to have in place to make the feature film of “Deluge” exactly as you would want?

Hmmm. I’m not sure if we can expect to see this film expanded into a feature in the near future, unless I am able to secure a very large budget to properly execute the total vision for the story. I’ve definitely considered expanding the film and have received a lot of questions about it. The feature film version of this film would include a lot of elements that I wasn’t able to do as a graduate student on the short film, including extensive underwater photography that really explores the world of the black mermaids and goes into their backstory and lives. I’d want the feature-film version to be an epic underwater, above-water journey bringing us into multiple worlds and emotions. That could only be done with a proper budget and I don’t think it’s something that could be done as an independent film- underwater filming, special effects, stunts, costumes and many other elements would all have to be considered.

Would you say this film is a nod to “Eve’s Bayou”?

“Eve’s Bayou” is a definite reference for Deluge. It is one of my favorite films and really informed some of my creative process around this film, especially in the voiceover element. Though the voiceover forms such a small part of the actual narrative of Eve’s Bayou, it has an immense power and texture that shapes the film, and I wanted to borrow that same technique in Deluge, by having the adult Tiana recall the experience. There’s a sort of haunting quality, it leaves you thinking about Tiana-what came of her and where is she now? I also appreciated how Kasi Lemmons explored the age of innocence for Eve Batiste and how it’s threatened by the murkier, adult world around her. She comes of age in this way, and I wanted Tiana to also come of age during Deluge-learning about fate, death, and also love, and how easily they all could end.


Why do you think you were the person to tell this story?

I had dreams about it. These dreams enabled me to write the script where I was able to marry narrative of the teens to the narrative of the black mermaids. In my dreams, I’d see Tiana venturing to the river after the drowning and meeting the black mermaids. I woke up and knew that I had to write this script and tell this story. I really fought to make this film. There were a lot of obstacles we faced in even getting the idea off the ground. Making a film about water and drowning isn’t something that is encouraged in film school, especially when the film is shot on location. But the faculty of my program really respected by work ethic and discipline and supported the project after I proved my ability to direct it. The process was no easy task- from choreographing scenes with black mermaids in a river, to learning the New Orleans terrain, but in the end, I was grateful that this story came to me and wouldn’t leave my mind until I told it.

Finally, what does living unchained mean to you?

It means freedom, and jumping into a pool without worrying that your hair will get messed up. It means appreciating rain on your face, and watching the tide.


Written by Kathryn Buford



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