May 11, 2020

Alumni Spotlight: Merawi Gerima '18

By Jason Ng

Merawi Gerima ‘18 touched audiences at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival with his feature directorial debut, ResidueMerawi also wrote, produced, and edited the drama, which follows a film school student who returns to his hometown only to find that his neighborhood has been gentrified beyond recognition. This powerful story is inspired by his own experience during a summer visit back home to DC while a student here at USC.

Residue was widely acclaimed at Slamdance, winning the Audience Award as well as receiving an Honorable Mention for the prestigious Grand Jury Prize. The film expertly weaves issues of race, class, and gentrification into its story and characters, while showcasing the creative direction of a rising young talent.

Merawi recently joined us in a discussion about his film and shared his thoughts as a filmmaker.

So how has everything been with the COVID-19? How has it impacted your workflow as a filmmaker?

Yeah, I mean, there's nothing going on right now so, there's that, but around ourselves with that, but, yeah, I mean, the film was in the middle of this festival circuit and everything just kind of stopped abruptly. I think that the festival prospects for the rest of this year are getting dimmer by the day. But fortunately we had our premiere and it was a strong premiere so I think that, you know, in the end, I'm faring better than a lot of other people who had their premiere set up. I feel especially bad for folks who had their films going to SXSW.

But for me personally it's been fine. It's given me a lot of time to just read mostly. I have some projects that I'm kind of writing as well. But, you know, most of my time has been spent reading all the stuff that I just haven't been able to get to. You know it's been good.

Your feature film debut Residue premiered at Slamdance earlier this year. What was your inspiration in creating this? What was your approach in creating what seems to be a very personal project?

It was a very personal project. You know, I started at USC in 2015 in the fall and the next year I went back home and I think that was the longest I've been away from my home, which is D.C., in one go, because I didn't come back for winter break or anything like that. I think that being able to see the gentrification and the intensity in which the city had changed in one year, I think it was a bit of a shock. It was a rough visit. And I think  I started writing the script to keep myself from, you know, falling into the various traps for angry black people in the city. So I started writing the script, came back to school in the fall of 2016, and went through that school year with the aim of shooting in the summer of 2017.

It was definitely a personal story just because of its origins, you know, coming out of this angry kind of moment. But it ended up being a bit of a constructive and replenishing experience. You know, the writing process was really a recounting of some of my most cherished memories, and so in that way it was it was very healing. And in fact, as the process went on, the more personal it became because suddenly the script is done and then we're gonna go film in the city where I'm from. And not only that, but the actual neighborhood where I was born, with the people who I grew up with and their kids. In the end it became this amazing kind of intermingling of the various communities that have made me to who I am at this point, from the folks from my neighborhood to my family to the filmmaking community in D.C. It's very personal.

At Slamdance, Residue won the Audience Award and was a runner up to the Grand Jury Prize. What did it mean to you to see your feature film debut so well received?

It was real nice. Slamdance is cool, man. It's a very intentionally a small and intimate experience. It felt like a collection of real cool friends and family. I enjoyed it because of the intimate nature, the care with which they program and facilitate these films and filmmakers. They really do a lot of work to promote each and every filmmaker as equally as they can in each and every film. So seeing my film in that environment just getting showered with love was special especially from people from all over the world. It was nice to see people interact with my film which was so intentionally specific to a certain place and time. It was nice to see that impact people and for people to respond emotionally and very positively. Yeah, it was special.

Residue tackles the topics of gentrification and race, but it isn't a film about gentrification or race. Why was it important to present all of these problems instead of just one in particular, one specific to the character?

Black people in D.C. or my neighborhood, we don't experience those problems as one of the other. You experience them as one massive congealed ball of oppression. It's very difficult when you're in the thick of it to know what to discern all the various layers of oppression that are affecting your life in every single way. Like for me, growing up, I had no idea why the things that were happening were happening around me.

It's only when you get some distance from those events or from that place that you can start to tease out all the various systems of racism, oppression, economic exploitation. All those things that you can start to give them names, but when you're in the thick of it, it just feels like one wall of oppression. So, that's why we took that perspective in the film. I feel like the more you name these problems, the more you label them, you compartmentalize them in perfect little boxes, the more you trivialize the effect that they have on people. It's never that simple.

Can you elaborate on what the title of the film means to you?

Residual memories for sure. After a bulldozer comes through, what's left behind, does this work? You know, after after the cleaning crew comes and does their work, you know, in many ways in D.C. and many other cities, the police act like a cleaning crew, preparing the city for the next inhabitants. And you feel like you've been just swept out. And so to me, the people who are left who are still holding on, they are really the residue of the situation. The idea is that the residue has a story to tell. I don't know anybody else with similar interests, but it's certainly very important for me to capture as much of that residue as I possibly can and also recognize myself as that as well.

How important is it to you to be authentic with your work? 

For me, I come from a very specific time and the only way I can even just makes sense of my whole life is acknowledging, you know, by putting at the very forefront, you know, all the facets of my day. So, one, I was born in Washington, D.C., specifically the northeast quadrant, in the 90s. I was born in 88, but I grew up in the 90s, which was a very specific historical moment in the context of D.C. history, where a lot of things were converging, a lot of forces were converging, on top of the black community in the city and with immense consequences. I think that knowing and placing myself in that intersection of all these different things that were happening, it began to give me perspective on who I am and the decisions that I made.

So, for example, the way I speak is very specific. I have a D.C. accent, you know, and as much as I complain that I'm losing my accent, I know that I have accent compared to somebody who's from Chicago or New York or L.A. I could be placed in a specific place in a specific time and place, you know, because my accent is not like it's not on the cutting edge of, like D.C. accents. In fact, my accent is a little bit dated, according to some of my friends. So I think that like that, such specificity is crucial to my sense of identity, my sense of who I am.

And because of that perspective, it's almost impossible for me to get to produce outside of that. Sometimes I wonder how I would do if I went to the industry and tried to make generic Hollywood films, because it's it's very difficult for me to not be authentic to who I am. It's very difficult for me to just kind of make these things out of nowhere. I'm in a much more comfortable space as a creator when I'm reflecting or expressing the things that I've ingested through my own experiential journey through life. Anybody can say authenticity is important, but I think in many ways it's the only way I know how to operate.