Gentrification has dramatically transformed parts of D.C. over the past decade.
Filmmaker Merawi Gerima explores the changes in the film “Residue” on Netflix, having grown up in Northeast off North Capitol Street and Florida Avenue in the Eckington neighborhood, which is now rapidly being redeveloped and rebranded as NoMa.
“Literally like everybody in the credits is from out here [in Northeast D.C.],” Gerima told WTOP. “Hella people have been like tagging me with just shots of the credits like, ‘Oh! I didn’t even know I was gonna be in the credits! I’m on Netflix!’ It’s been cool.”
The film follows the story of a young indie filmmaker named Jay, who returns home to D.C. after many years away to write a script about his childhood, only to find his former neighborhood unrecognizable and most of his childhood friends scattered to the wind.
“The neighborhood has changed beyond his recognition,” Gerima said. “Also, the folks he grew up with [are] scattered left and right, so he’s trying to try to track them down and kind of figure out his own place in this new, glittering city.”
The story follows Gerima’s own feelings after returning from USC film school.
“The changes that had happened in one year was drastic,” Gerima said. “When you’re in the thick of it you notice the changes, but it’s just not all at once. Going away for a year and coming back, it was like a time warp. I felt like I just dropped into the city from the future where half of my storyline, half my community was not brought along.”
His primary goal was to visually document whatever remained.
“To document all of that, put that all on paper, to future-proof it … to get it all committed to some type of archive before the rest of the destruction,” Gerima said. “If you go back to the places where we shot … a lot of places are not there. [The city becomes] a flailing, groaning, creaking, angry character. Capturing its demise on camera is crazy.”
Thus, he uses a gritty directing style rather than a polished shine.
“Our primary camera was an Arri Alexa,” Gerima said. “We start off with footage from a Nikon D500 and iPhone. [Other] footage is DSLR. There’s a lot of 8 mm footage. The way we use it to this collage effect … jumping around, dirtying up the image, different resolutions and frame rates, … pushing in hella hella hella just to bring the grain out.”
Likewise, the story is more character-driven than plot-driven.
“It came out organically,” Gerima said. “The whole point is that you’re experiencing the film as Jay, so it’s like super close as if the camera is on his shoulder literally. The sound design as well, everything comes together to give you an idea of his interiority.”
It was a trip casting someone to play himself, but Obinna Nwachukwu nailed it.
“He’s a super interesting brother,” Gerima said. “He’s quiet, but he’s a chameleon. I saw him like watching me at times when I’m directing other people and stuff. … He would ask me, ‘Do you say something like this?’ … We got to a point where we were just, ‘How much of me and how much of you is going into this character?'”
The result won the Audience Award at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, where it caught the attention of Ava DuVernay (“Selma,” “13th,” “When They See Us”).
“They came to the Slamdance premiere,” Gerima said. “They were really pleased by the film, but also particularly the audience’s reaction. … We’ve been talking since then [and] Venice was a joint venture between us. … If you look at Ava and what they’re doing … they’re trailblazers in the arena of Black film production and distribution.”
Gerima also learned a thing or two from his own family history. His Ethiopian father Haile Gerima and American mother Shirikiana Aina collaborated on the Golden Bear nominee “Sankofa” (1993) as members of the proverbial L.A. Film Rebellion.
“Both of my parents are incredible Black independent filmmakers,” Gerima said. “My dad graduated from UCLA. He had two feature films under his belt when he graduated, one at Cannes, ‘Harvest: 3,000 Years,’ and one film ‘Bush Mama,’ which was his thesis film. … So for me, it’s just a personal challenge, because I knew what was possible.”
What advice does he have for other aspiring filmmakers in the D.C. area?
“Film school is a lot of times the thing that holds us back because it puts these ideas into our minds of how much money we need to make a movie,” Gerima said. “When people ask me if film school was worth it: Hell no. I learned a lot, but at the same time, it wasn’t worth $250,000 of debt. … The best film school I had was making a movie.”