Talent Talk: Merawi Gerima on His Debut Feature, ‘Residue,’ Bowing on Netflix Sept. 17

As is often said, it takes a village to raise a child. In Merawi Gerima’s case, it took a robust community that included friends, family and neighbors to get his topical feature debut, Residue, off the ground.

Residue bows Sept. 17 on Netflix and in select theaters via Ava DuVernay’s Array Releasing.

Four years in the making, the film was shot over a string of summers and stolen moments to capture Gerima’s account of an aspiring filmmaker’s return to his old neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Based on Gerima’s own experience, the story pivots around Jay, played by Obinna Nwachukwu, who finds himself adrift in a familiar but alarmingly gentrified neighborhood as he seeks inspiration for his screenplay and searches for a childhood friend who has vanished.

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Residue was the only American film to compete in Venice Days, a sidebar of the 77th Venice Film Festival, which pulled off the first major in-person film event since the COVID-19 pandemic forced many to go online, including Cannes. This followed its world premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival, where it took home the festival’s Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature and the Acting Award for Nwachukwu.

“We didn’t have any expectations about ending up in Venice,” noted Gerima, whose father is celebrated Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima, a renowned figure in the L.A. Rebellion film movement.

Being one of the few Americans in Venice was a singular experience. “There was a lot of buzz around the film, which sold out on its first day,” said Gerima, who lauded the stringent safety protocols of the festival.

The film has a documentary feel to it, with opening shots of actual protests and footage from his L.A. to D.C. road trip. Residue’s poetic visual style is underscored by footage taken with a diversity of cameras, including cellphones and a donated Arri Alexa camera. Employing guerilla style filmmaking meant eschewing location permits as he shot scenes at his friends’ and family’s home turf.

It boasts a cast of mostly non-actors with the exception of Nwachukwu and a few others who have had some theatrical experience. “The actors didn’t see the full script, we gave them the scenes of the day and rehearsals would often be the final take,” said Gerima, who said he gave them some free rein to improvise.

Working on a shoestring budget also meant having just enough to feed cast and crew, with his aunts doing the catering.

Lamenting the eradication of already marginalized communities from gentrification, Gerima asserted: “We felt it was necessary to tell this story.”

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