By James Cullum
Jen Meller says she’s sitting on a creative goldmine and her backdrop is Columbia Heights. The 26-year-old American University film grad candidate is in pre-production for her thesis project Venus, a 30 minute movie about the tribulations of a gender fluid subculture of D.C. musicians and artists.
“It’s gritty, it’s edgy, but you’re really going to see the subculture for what it is,” Jen said in a recent interview at the Qualia Coffeehouse and Roaster. “When I got to this scene I decided, ‘Okay, this is a really interesting place. As enamored as I am by this scene – someone else when they see it has to feel this way from the outside.”
Venus (on a $15k budget – see their Indiegogo page) will tell the five day adventure of nine eccentric and self-proclaimed “gender-bending” misfit artists within the fictional Venus Records – based on Petworth’s Blight Records – described by Jen as a safe place to explore boundaries and gender dynamics. The movie will also criticize what the Jen calls D.C.’s male-centric music scene.
“There’s much less people in attendance when there is a heavily female line-up,” Jen said. “And then I turned to the Blight boys (Br’er, Johnny Fantastic, CrushnPain, Stronger Sex) and they internalized this in a very different way. I asked them: ‘Why do you guys do all the makeup on stage?’ Given, I did their makeup, but I got the answer that ‘There’s not that many girls around, so we have to absorb some of the feminine.’ It’s kind of this odd societal wheel that we are turning. The patriarchy has created this dynamic, which is an odd dynamic, an interesting dynamic.”
Ben Schurr, of Br’er, runs Blight Records and will play the part of the Venus label owner.
“I feel like I’ve been married to tons of people and have been in these very deep emotional relationships with people in bands,” Schurr said. “They’re not always sexual, but sometimes they are. I’ve certainly been in some of those, too. But I think that’s where a lot of it comes from, like not making any defined rules about who you’re attracted to, and like who you can date and who you can’t date. It’s freedom, in a weird way.”
John Di Lascio (aka Johnny Fantastic) is playing Jesse, an electric pop musician wrestling with coming out as transgender to his fans in a dress and makeup on stage.
“It started that our bands, as a way to even the score, started feminizing ourselves to make the situation more amenable to the feminist perspective,” Di Lascio said. “Personally, I found that it ended up going beyond the music and it became part of my own personality and I started exploring my own gender, and things just sort of have gone deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. But I feel that it was really a way of brightening up the performers, making them more beautiful, making the familiar scene have more of a chance to have a feminist perspective. I’ve always admired the female torch singers who can quiet down a room with a beautiful performance in a sparkling dress and gorgeous voice, and that is always what I wanted to be as a performer.”
Jen, a native of Long Island, NY, graduated from AU in 2011, and worked as a fashion photographer in New York City for two years before returning for her Master’s in 2013. It wasn’t until early this year, though, that she started attending local DIY (Do It Yourself) shows with her boyfriend, Austin Gallas, who now plays with Blight’s Stronger Sex and CrushnPain. Over the summer she toured around the country with Stronger Sex, filming b-roll and eventually became Blight’s creative director, overseeing all hair, make-up, light, costume and visual designs.
“It’s a cautionary tale to look at how society treats people,” she said. “You have to come to terms with who you are, and I’m extremely gender fluid. I’m definitely bi. I have no issue in finding a man in lipstick hot, but I’m a headstrong girl. I have no problem being in a press pit with a group of guys throwing down an elbow.”
Venus is scheduled to begin filming in late Jan. 2016, and will will star Jen Meller, Austin Gallas, Leah Gage, May Tabol, Erik Sleight, Ben Schurr, Lindsay Hogan, John Di Lascio and Ben Usie.