“Greenlight Yourself” | Director Merawi Gerima on the Making of ‘Residue’

Residue, written and directed by Merawi Gerima, had its world premiere at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival where it won the Audience Award, Special Jury Mention and Acting Award for lead Obinna Nwachukwu. The film follows aspiring filmmaker Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu) returning to his childhood Washington, DC, neighborhood that has been gentrified beyond recognition. Dealing with alienation from his friends, troubled by the disappearance of his best friend, and unsure of his place in this new community, Jay confronts issues of identity, gentrification and loss.

Now streaming on Netflix through Ava DuVernay's distribution company ARRAY, Residue has racked up stellar reviews from The Guardian, The New Yorker and the New York Times, to name a few. Stacey Marbrey, longtime Slamdance programmer and filmmaker, sat down with Merawi to talk in depth about Residue and the inspiring DIY stories behind how the film was made —with limited resources but an abundance of determination, talent, and community support.

Check out some highlights below, or watch the full interview here.

On the gentrification of DC and the inspiration for making Residue:

"I spent a whole year away and I came back to DC with all these emotions kind of swirling. Then I saw that the city that I had not really appreciated, you appreciate it more when it's leaving you. So to see it changing so quickly really threw me off and put me into survivor mode like ‘oh, this is life and death.’ It's immediate and requires immediate action. The fact that it took me a whole year to write this script was stressful. I was disturbed throughout the whole writing process waiting to go back to film.

Black people and white people, or DC natives and this new gentrifying population, live in two different worlds. They live in two different universes on top of each other. It's totally possible to exist in DC and have no clue what's happening to the black people in the city. And I think that it's really only this white gentrifying class that has that privilege of not knowing what black people in the city are going through. Black people, we have no choice but to know what people are up to in the city because it's so directly consequential to our everyday living. So the film really is about the black communities in DC...

Really all I can say for certain about making the film is that I was chasing this urgent requirement within myself to document as much about my community as quickly as possible before it was too late and in many ways, if you go back now, many places that we shot are gone.

I was really documenting this invisible population in a way that I was requiring people to notice.

On the powerful prison visitation scene:

I witnessed from a young age the destruction of prison, the havoc it wreaks on relationships, family relationships, family ties. I think the fact that families are forced to try to relate to each other across the span of decades over a phone line and [you’re limited by] these expensive phone calls, I think that really soured me at an early age, to the whole carceral system in general. The United States’ way of doing things. I felt that there must be ways to transcend that. There must be ways that people kind of exchange real human emotion despite those limitations. 

For the most part, as I was writing the script, I was emotional because I have my own big brother locked up. And for me, it was a question of what will I say to him when I see him? I found him online somehow right before we went to shoot and I knew that I would go to shoot and visit after. So for me, writing the scene, I wanted to see and explore for myself what I would say to him. How would the conversation go? What are the things that we would talk about? And that's kind of where it comes out of— shared memories. I can't say that I was setting out to say "this is black love between two men" or to be a shining example for other black men to emulate. I was trying to just figure out my own situation. And it's interesting, when I did go to visit [my brother in prison], the first thing we talked about was the mountains.

On the value of sound in filmmaking:

One of my focuses in film school was sound and the school I went to, their sound department is, I think, their best department. I would say I was well-trained in sound and it really gave me a new appreciation for the broader potential of filmmaking. It's also the way that we were able to get around expensive production elements; police cars, drive-by shootings, uniforms, prisons, all these things we were able to solve using sound.

On documenting the sounds of DC:

The other thing is that my memories are very specific to the sounds. I remember the bucket drummers at the top of the block, the crickets, the cicadas, all of those things. The sounds of all the kids shouting at night, the go-go music playing out of people’s radios or windows or cars passing by. This is very specific and I just felt that the film should have all those things. 

Specifically regarding the sounds of the city, I felt like I had to document those things. [Like] the way they document the extinction of certain animals because you can't hear them in the rain forest anymore. You hear recordings from 30 years ago, and there are a lot of bullfrogs in the recording. But now, if you listen to that same rainforest there are less. They use that to chart the extinction of certain species. I just felt like that's what happened to my neighborhood. You go there now it’s quiet, really quiet, you know, it's so pristine. It's so devoid of really any kind of culture, especially DC culture. It just kind of threw me off and so I just felt like I had to capture any amount that I could that was left, that DC culture. So really for me, it's an archival document, the sound.

Film still from Residue courtesy of ARRAY

On casting Residue from within the community:

I landed in DC with nobody casted, except for Dennis, who I called on the way to DC. Dennis Lindsey, who plays Delonte— he was my college roommate. We had to cast forty-something roles and that was our whole task of pre-production. Obi [Nwachukwu, who plays the lead character of Jay], he’s done theater before and he was one of the only people who could give us two weeks straight which is what we needed for the lead role. He is the type of person who wants to act, so he designed his life around the film. And other people were just recommendations and family friends. At Sankofa [the bookstore in DC founded by Merawi’s parents], a lot of people pass through to the bookstore and the cafe so [we’d be] grabbing people who will come in for a cup of coffee—if they had the right age or look. But some people were cast right off the street. There's a scene where these three guys are heckling or speaking disrespectful to [Jay's] girlfriend, to Blue, by the construction site, and a fight almost breaks out. Those dudes were passing by, our actors really hadn’t shown up for that scene and so these two guys... One of them, he’s with the backpack, that's my neighbor, but the other two, they were passing by as we were about to shoot and I was like, “hey you wanna be in a movie?” And they were like, “yeah, yeah.” One of them just happened to have on a white mask and people keep asking what was the significance of the mask but it was really just what he was wearing, so we just left it in.


On the unexpected gifts that arise from the spontaneity of the process:

From start to finish, the whole thing is just kind of a collection of coincidences and lucky moments and gifts from the ancestors. I'll tell you one. The scene where Mike's mother finds out the bad news, that we shot in the rain, I always felt that it would benefit from being shot in the rain. It was also a scene I was afraid to shoot, to be quite honest, because I didn't want anybody to come outside of the house and see me shooting this scene which is real for my community. I just felt very exploitative and I was kind of self-conscious. So we held on to the scene, we held it in our back pocket so to speak, just in case it rains—one: for the emotional intensity of the rain, but two: also selfishly to shoot by cover of rain. One day, I saw that there was rain on the forecast and the only problem was it was supposed to rain all day and we had five other scenes to shoot that didn't require rain. So we just sat out there to see what would happen, if we would get rained out. So we started shooting and it's crazy because the sky held up that entire day right up until the moment that we finished the last scene before we needed it. When we started shooting the scene with Mike's mother, who's my mother by the way, the sky opened up! It was crazy.

So we were like, “Yo, everybody, we're shooting now.” It was the most painful thing I had to do as a director up to that point, to direct my mother to do this scene because it's very real for her. She wasn’t even supposed to be there. In fact, our actor fell through that day. That's another crazy thing, she was a no-show. My mother was in her car about to go get her or to go find her somewhere in the city, we didn't know where she was, and I was like, “Ma, I actually need you to do it. There's no time to go see what's up with this lady,” and so she was like “okay, I’ll do it.” You know it was a bit of a struggle because it's very real for her and so if you watch that scene she's not really acting at all. The entire story of this film is something that she experienced living on Q-Street, helping to raise these boys and watching them grow up only to be cut down in the ways that we are, left and right. We shot it and there was an issue with the camera because of the placement, so I had to ask her to do it again, and she just looked at me like she was just in disbelief. We went again, but the rain had gone and she had no more left in her and so really what you see is the first take.

The way it turned out, I wasn't able to appreciate the power of it until months later because I thought the shot we were lining up as much different in my mind. I didn’t see the gift until much later.

On communities telling their own stories:

 I do believe that every community should sprout its own kind of storytellers by its own standards, rather than people parachuting in from Hollywood. Every community should have the ability, should be given the ability to tell its own story, or they should take that by any means. The Delonte character is kind of a crystallization of this idea that the outsider should be met with suspicion at all times, to really be suspicious of their intentions and their motivations. It’s also not only to say that you may be coming to exploit us for these stories, because of course black pain is so easily exploitable, but to also say that you may not be the best equipped. We can tell our story if we so choose. The dark reality is that Hollywood is prepared to go in, they have the resources to tell that community’s story for them before the community can ever amass the resources required to do it.

Photo credit Lishan AZ

On the relationship between filmmaker, critic, and community:

I can't just make a film and just throw it out to the world. I have to be held accountable to how people receive it. I think that there are two different types of people who can receive it: there are people who understand film or study film, and there are people who are just everyday people who do other things other than film who have a much more organic and natural response to it. That's kind of a separation between the critic and audience in the community. But also the community is somebody who has a certain relationship to you. I think that that's important as well, in the way that they respond to the film. For Residue, it's important that I made the film and then I put it out and showed it to the community, one which helped make it. Because without the community, the film would not have been possible. We had no resources, and what we lacked in resources we made up for in community; the crew and locations and food, and all these things that people came together to help us do. So I had to be responsible, and I have to be held accountable because I could make a film and exploit them or misrepresent or all these kinds of things. They have to have the opportunity to say, “hey, we have been misrepresented by this work,” or “we feel that this is this or this is that” for my own growth,and also for theirs. 

You also have to subject the film to educated eyes as well, for the craft of it. Then, the community and the critic have to have their confrontation as well, or their interaction where they are also brought up to the craft, or they have the opportunity to have their own film literacy increased. The critic— he engages with the work and he has to also be brought down to the level of the community. It's like this kind of back and forth dialectic between all three sections of that triangle and no one really is taking any type of control or priority, all three sections are critical to do this mutual improvement of people.

On the community's reaction to the film:

In the screening, people from the film came, their families, the Sankofa community came, and also the Q Street community. It was this kind of triple-layered community present and it was incredible. People were actually touched and tears were shed and conversations were had where people just claimed it in a way, claimed the film for their own. There was an older gentleman, I’ll never forget, who was saying “This is our story.” Even though I didn't know him closely, he was from Q street and he was just saying “this is how we grew up,” or “this is the story, the history of Q street as I know it”.

On the film's international reception in Venice:

We had people who are diehard fighting for it and people who are absolutely against it. The type of division it created, I think it was just an interesting kind of reaction to the film. I just thought it was amazing to see that it had the power to get people up out of their seats in that way, this far away from America. That these issues which they don't deal with directly in the way it’s spoken about in the film, still have that potential around the world. It’s beautiful.

I think it's also beautiful to see people internationally seeing what's happening in black communities.

Film still from Residue courtesy of ARRAY

On premiering at Slamdance:

We went from Slamdance and then every festival was just getting cut down left and right because of Covid. So the fact that we had our world premiere at Slamdance right before Covid was the luckiest thing, the most crucial kind of element of this whole puzzle. So many incredible films have been paused completely just kinda in limbo, waiting to see what will happen, waiting to see when theaters will open up and festivals will come back.

It is a pleasure to be back with Slamdance, the launch pad. I mean it was absolutely critical for where I am now that you all were able to, in your way, kind of resist these outside pressures and really focus on the art. I think that it's very likely that a film like this would have had a totally different experience, a totally different trajectory, if there were no places like Slamdance ready to accept it.

On greenlighting yourself: 

I would say the most important thing for me has been this constant refusal to wait on anything, for anybody. We just say green light yourself, green light yourself at all times and under all conditions. I think that that is valuable and the more we applied it, the more progress we saw. In terms of finding your tribe, I think it's the same thing, I think you find your tribe by action, by doing the things that you want to do, by shooting families and by shooting a Residue. We found more people who are interested in shooting, who are interested in community filmmaking in the process of making this project.

On finding your own filmmaking voice:

Often you find people who are not interested in going outside the boundaries of what they're being taught, despite what we all say about trying to break the rules and things like that. I think that it is a constant kind of struggle to find people who align with what you're trying to do but I think it is in the action of doing films, making films that you will find people who are aligned with your way of making films.

In terms of finding your voice, the most critical thing for me has been to protect my own inherent amateur instincts. To listen to those over and above the ways of operating that I was taught, that they teach at the school I went to. I think the more you listen to your own amateurs instincts, the more you're really chasing and following what will become your voice, your own kind of whispers that you need to develop because it's very small and delicate.

Hollywood threatens to destroy your voice. It's no secret that film schools push out a lot of cookie cutter films and projects and filmmakers because in the end what they're doing is just replicating the same type of story-telling techniques.

I stopped taking writing classes early on, I stopped taking directing class early on because I felt that that's where this kind of delicate voice that I was trying to nurture could be squashed, could be really destroyed. I focused more on the technical aspects like sounds, cinematography, and producing because I felt like writing and directing is really time in the seat, it's the time spent doing those things where you really develop those skills. I can do those on my own projects. Residue is the best film school ever, ever, ever.


Residue is now available on Netflix. Watch the full interview below.

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