The trials and tribulations of gender-fluid people in D.C.’s local music scene is more than just a coffee conversation topic for American University film grad candidate Jen Meller.
Meller, creative director of local music label Blight Records, decided to transform her experiences with gender roles in the music industry into a fictional documentation of the plights this community faces for her thesis project.
“I needed to make a thesis and I really wasn’t feeling too passionate about anything specific and a lot of my friends were saying, ‘Oh my god, you’re sitting on this great documentary,’” Meller says.
Meller says fiction has been her preferred method of filmmaking and the documentary became the mockumentary “Venus.” The 30-minute film will be loosely based on Blight Records and most of the cast members are gender fluid in the film and in real life. The real-life gender-fluid people in the film, Meller’s friends from Blight Records, were a large part of the film coming together.
“I started to notice that, ‘Wow there’s a story behind this group,’” Meller says. “Whether it’s fictionalized or not, there’s an energy.”
The film’s Indiegogo page describes the film as, “a fascinating look at the DIY (Do It Yourself) underground music scene, transgender issues and the dynamics inherent in all of humanity.” It follows 10 members from the record label Venus as they prepare for the performance of one of the label’s bands returning from a month-long tour. In the midst of the preparations, the group deals with gender identity and gender equality.
Filming begins this month with band performance scenes scheduled at DIY-music venue Bathtub Republic on Friday, Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. and at Songbyrd Music House and Record Cafe (2477 18th St., N.W.) on Sunday, Feb. 7 at noon. The crew is recruiting extras for both scenes and welcomes anyone interested in filming to show up.
Meller hopes to have the film completed by June and plans to submit it to various local film festivals.
Local D.C. bands under Blight Records will be creating music as fictional bands in the film. Br’er, Johnny Fantastic, CrushnPain and Stronger Sex will create music that may not have fit in their actual bands, but gives them room to experiment creatively for the film.
Meller hopes the film will open the general public’s eyes to the issues of gender in the music scene they may not have thought about before.
“You don’t typically have things that reference gender fluidity or sex-positive feminism. It’s not usually smacking the mainstream public over the head. I’m making an experimental film that I hope will reach a wider audience and force them to sit through and see things,” Meller says.
John Di Lascio, also known as Johnny Fantastic, is helping put together the music in the film and also stars as Jesse, a musician coming to terms with transgender identity.
“He’s attracted to the rising tide of trans culture and gender-fluid culture, but there’s a kind of discontent between the real experience of being a female and how Jessie romanticizes it in his mind,” Di Lascio says.
Di Lascio identifies as gender fluid himself and has performed at Black Cat’s Church Night. Entrenched in both the D.C. music scene and queer scene, he notices queer music can be hard to find.
“I think that queer representation is usually something you kind of have to be a little more in the loop to come across or accidentally walk into the right place at the right time and happen upon some hyper queer group of some sort,” Di Lascio says.
Di Lascio thinks there’s a clear divide between the mainstream D.C. music scene and queer representation.
“There’s a rift that exists between straight mainstream cis-gendered-defined groups and then there is the queer groups that seem on their own,” Di Lascio says. “There’s somewhat of a disconnect between the straight music community and the queer music community.”
Di Lascio says the timing is ideal.
“The gender-fluid movement and gender-fluid culture has come much further to the forefront in very recent times in an exponential way. We wanted to at least tell a little bit of that story and recognize the existence of that story,” Di Lascio says.
Meller’s biggest inspiration for “Venus” was the 1995 film “Kids,” directed by Larry Clarke and written by Harmony Korine. “Kids” follows a group of skateboarding teenagers in New York City in their everyday lives. Clarke spent time in Washington Square Park, the skateboarding capital of New York City, and got to know the skateboarders who would eventually become actors in the film. Meller replaced Washington Square Park with Columbia Heights, but hoped to follow a style similar to “Kids” down to the camera work and multiple-themed storyline.
“‘Kids’ was a film about the skateboarder community that wasn’t really documented prior to this, but it was really about HIV/AIDS. ‘Venus’ is really about gender roles and gender identity but on the surface it looks like it’s just about the music scene and DIY,” Meller says.
Di Lascio says an overall documentary on gender fluidity wouldn’t have been as effective as Meller’s approach, focusing on individuals.
“It’s important to focus on … how gender fluidity manifests itself in their personal lives and how (it) helps society and helps open mindedness and tolerance exist,” he says.
The crowdfunding campaign ended in January with a hopeful goal of $15,000. The film has raised less than $2,000 from the campaign, but Meller says efforts to raise money from businesses and to get sponsorships have been well underway to pay for equipment rentals, location rentals, wardrobe, props, post-production, food and much more.
Di Lascio says he hopes “Venus” opens a dialogue for people to examine the issues of gender fluidity and patriarchy.
“I want people to see those for what they are, recognize that these conflicts exist and be more openly sympathetic to these issues and be motivated to criticize the patriarchy, and be criticized by their actions that are patriarchal, so that we can change,” Di Lascio says.