eliza berkon is a journalist and musician based in washington d.c. 

This New Documentary Presents A ‘Marvel Universe’ Of D.C. Musicians

This New Documentary Presents A ‘Marvel Universe’ Of D.C. Musicians

“We’re trying to completely shift the narrative, going beyond the gender binary, going beyond genre,” says D.C. musician YÀNJÚ in a trailer for an episode of Indelible. “We’re tired of waiting for a seat at the table.”

The vocalist and founder of arts collective P0STB1NARY is the subject in the fifth episode of the series, a solo project of Greenbelt filmmaker Antonio Hernandez. A feature-length version—featuring shots from the six existing episodes as well as unseen footage—screens Sept. 18 at Suns Cinema in Mount Pleasant.

Earlier this week, Hernandez spoke to me about the project at one of his frequent editing locations, the Hyattsville Busboys and Poets stationed at one end of Maryland’s Gateway Arts District. He described the music scenes in D.C. and Baltimore as a “communal network” for musicians, especially for those identifying as female or LGBTQ.

“Things are very connected—I wanted to show that there’s almost like a Marvel Universe of musicians,” Hernandez says.

Indelible is one in a string of new local music documentaries, including Straight Crankin’Punk the Capital, Feast Your Ears and Anacostia Delta. The ongoing series of short, black-and-white episodes features several local musicians, including Maryland rapper Odd Mojo and D.C. jazz and funk outfit Black Folks Don’t Swim?

Not long ago, filmmaking was an unlikely career path for Hernandez, who says he once “hated taking pictures.” The 30-year-old Petworth native, who moved to Greenbelt in middle school, studied international studies rather than film at Towson University. But while studying abroad in Costa Rica, he signed up for an ecological photography class in which the instructor assigned students practical projects, such as capturing basic shapes in nature.

“It kind of changed the way I looked at the world,” Hernandez says.

A couple of years later, Hernandez enrolled in a visual anthropology class that culminated with a video project. His film, Walk in My Shoes, followed a classmate who has PIK3CA-related overgrowth spectrum, a rare disorder that causes an overgrowth of bones and tissue. And post-college, he launched a series called Garnish.

“It was called Garnish because originally it was supposed to be about food and music,” Hernandez says. But it was also a take on culture as garnish in D.C., “relative to the bigger picture of politics and business.”

The series depicted local culture, including profiles of Afro Ritmo Records, a Zeba Bar magician, and professional wrestlers in Northern Virginia. It garnered recognition from the D.C. Black Film Festival in 2017 and was picked up by the D.C. Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment, where Hernandez now works.

Each episode of Indelible (recently recognized by the Black Femme Supremacy Film Fest) is black-and-white, a choice Hernandez says he made to create cohesion across episodes and create a “stripped-down” effect in settings often filled with bright lights and neon colors. And rather than approach the documentary in a heavy-handed, making-a-statement sort of way, Hernandez uses a light touch, seemingly a mere witness to stories told by the artists themselves.

“When I first started, it was barely anybody that looked like me or [was] doing music like me in these spaces,” says Baltimore artist Abdu Ali. “But now I feel like there’s a lot more of that, you know what I’m saying—with the spaces that we have left.”

Each time Indelible is screened (the Suns Cinema screening is its third), Hernandez re-cuts the film, a concept he says he borrows from the constantly reworked jokes of comedians he watches in local standup show The Overachievers. He says he wants viewers to return to the film and see what’s changed over time.

His “personal brand” (a phrase he puts air quotes around) is Electric Llama, a nod both to the digital nature of his work and his Peruvian-American heritage. (As a DJ, Hernandez uses the moniker Vicunyah, an intentional misspelling of vicuña, a llama relative commonly found in Peru.) He seems rather reluctant to promote himself despite his accolades, saying he’s less concerned with awards than with whether the festivals align with his “narrative.”

“[I want to tell] unique stories that you really aren’t hearing enough of from artists in the region. And I think I want to give a broader look,” Hernandez says. “As a minority myself, I don’t always like labels, and I don’t think they’re necessary every time. I don’t walk into a room and be like, ‘Hi I’m Antonio, a Latinx or whatever filmmaker.’”

Indelible screens at Suns Cinema Sept. 18 at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets $8. YÀNJÚ will perform live immediately following the screening.

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