Of all the shorts I’ve seen at Outfest, among the most affecting was Heather María Ács’ debut short film FLU$H, a warmly funny vignette about a diverse group of queer friends who go into business for an evening. With tongue firmly in cheek, Heather’s film begins with the flush of a toilet and ends having given us a complete and surprisingly wholesome slice of queer life on the margins. The film was produced with the help of Pose and Transparent director Silas Howard, also a longtime friend collaborator with Heather, whose interdisciplinary work includes projects in theatre, nightlife, and fine art. Both Silas and Heather sat down to talk about the film, which is the first production from Heather’s new queer production company FemmePower Productions. It’s the first of a six short film series exploring radical queer communities, made by a cast and crew of artists whose identities cross various intersections of class, race, gender, and sexuality. It screens tonight at Outfest before the Joan Jett documentary Bad Reputation.
Austin Dale: I haven’t seen the Joan Jett movie yet, but from the super-punk score of this movie - I think they will work together nicely!
Heather María Ács: I feel really seen by the curatorial team. They paired me with a Joan Jett doc. I’m really excited about that.
AD: Do you want to talk to me a little bit about your journey to filmmaking?
HMÁ: Sure! I’ve been a performer and a writer for many years and an arts and events organizer in queer communities, so I have a lot of experience in artmaking, and I am a longtime collaborator with Silas. I’ve acted in a number of his projects. I’ve done a lot of acting in independent film and media projects with Silas and others. I felt like I was ready for a new medium and a new challenge. I didn’t realize how challenging it would be!
I was also interested in a new platform. I come from theater and performance art and there are powerful things about both of those mediums. I think it’s important, even more so now, that you’re in the room with people. However, that is contingent on the room you can get and the people you can get into the room. I was interested in filmmaking and media because I wanted to create a piece of art that can travel places I cannot!
And more specifically, I am really interested in what’s happening in media in terms of an expansion in roles and narratives that are more related to the communities I’m a part of. There are more marginalized and intersectional characters being featured! I really love Chewing Gum and Insecure. And watching the journey of the people from High Maintenance has been fascinating. I’ve been on a bunch of professional sets as a performer, and I wanted to try my hand at directing, and I wanted to have a calling card to show that given the opportunity, this is the kind of work that I want to create. This is my first step towards episodic. That’s what I want.
AD: It’s a really specific and poignant picture of a community. How did you develop the story?
HMÁ: It is a love letter to my community, and I say community but there are so many and they’re intersecting, right? So the main goal is to represent the world I’m a part of. To see my communities reflected on screen. I do believe representation matters. Representation in media is a part of social change and social justice work. If we see ourselves reflected, if we see the multiplicities of characters and identities and narratives reflected, that is a part of building and strengthening our communities, and reaching out to make connection beyond our communities.
That’s my blah-blah-blah answer. But I also think all my communities are really beautiful! And I think everyone is really hot! Everyone has interesting lives and stories. There is cool stuff going on out there but you still can’t make things that are really fringe in a studio system, right? You can keep cracking the door open but for something to be really authentic...? I hope things will change and people with money will come in and say they want this, and won’t change anything. But, until then, we’re going to keep scraping to make the things that are real for us. I wanted to see my people on screen looking gorgeous.
The other main thing I want to see is DIY content. Leftist, radical, punk, weirdo, queer-do subculture. I want that content with a high production value. The content should be DIY, but not the aesthetic. I’m lucky because I have known so many artists for so long who are professionals in the industry, so I was able to pull all of these favors and get an amazing cinematographer and a great editor. To have Silas as an executive producer, who offers such amazing creative and logistical support. It’s a story that even five years ago that might not have looked like this. The writing might have been great, but it wouldn’t have looked like this.
AD: Silas, you’re an industry player now. That’s fun to say! Would you talk a little about what kind of logistical support you were able to provide for such a DIY project?
HMÁ: He is a player!
Silas Howard: What I want is to continue to make work in my communities. We have so many talented people who are giving 100% of their time and energy. And sometimes we may not be able to pay each other, but we always have acted like it’s our job. I was really lucky, because I had opportunities to keep making stuff - good stuff, and bad stuff - and really was able to hone my voice and tell about my experience. And then I went to UCLA and tried to work within the system, and I found that extremely difficult, so I went back to my community! That’s when Heather and I started collaborating. I went to New York City, and took a break from film and features and jumped into other work. With Justin Vivian Bond, for example. It kept me engaged and in practice.
But I could not have predicted that the world would kind of shift so much, where I’m doing shows like Pose, which I just worked on. That’s a high production value, with a deeply authentically told story. It’s incredible. So all I want to do is support voices who are bringing a lot into the world, especially right now with all the heightened terribleness of the world. Recovering our humanity through stories feels really vital.
HMÁ: You know what I just thought of? Conversations always get framed around the industry. The industry, the industry! How do I break into the industry!? And I was just thinking as Silas was talking. Not only has the industry changed, but radical queer communities have changed in that underground communities watch TV more than they used to. I moved to New York City in the 90’s, and it was really uncool if you were punk or leftist to watch TV! I had like one friend who had a TV, and you would secretly go over there to watch TV! But now, like, everyone watches TV, right? So now it’s totally normalized for anyone of any subculture or intellectual or political standpoint to be checking out television and mass media. It’s really amazing, because I can reach a wider platform and continue to reach the radical and queer and underground communities that I was active with, performing with and touring with. I had never thought about that.
AD: I wonder what has changed. Everything has changed.
HMÁ: It’s the internet. You can watch TV on your laptop. That’s the thing. You watch TV on your laptop now. And you watch short format stuff. You go online and you can see a fun short thing about older lesbians trying to figure out the slang of younger lesbians! That’s a hilarious video, by the way. It’s something we do. It’s totally normal for a bunch of punks to watch cute animal videos together.
AD: Speaking of a bunch of punks, you have a lot of colorful characters in this movie.
HMÁ: I am so excited about my cast. Another reason I wanted to make this was that I wanted to have characters that were multiracial, representing multiple identities. So some of them were written intentionally as far as that goes. I didn’t hold auditions, because I do hate competition, so I had a series of screen tests, where I brought people in. My goal was to cast people who had acting experience and were queer, because it’s so heartbreaking having being on the other end of the casting process, I sort of wanted to protect my community a little bit, so we did it this other way.
For example, TL Thompson, who plays my partner in the film, that character was written to be a gender non-conforming masculine character. TL happens to be one of my favorite actors and she was perfect for the role, so that’s who was cast. And so now you have a biracial couple. It wasn’t written that way. That’s what happened. For Christine Davitt’s character, I wanted a fat femme-identified character, and Christine is not an actor, but she’s a babe and a sweetheart and she read well on camera. So I cast her. Summer is an actor from an acting class I’m a part of - and I’ve loved Summer forever, and I wanted to cast someone on a transfeminine spectrum, and Morgan Sullivan is a trained actor as well. That one was interesting as well. Had to be someone who was masculine and willing to do drag, and not everyone is going to feel comfortable doing that. Morgan is trans male identified and totally down to do drag. Not everyone would be down. Silas, would you do that?
SH: No, I’m probably not the best for that. Not everyone wants to do that!
HMÁ: So I’m really excited about my cast. The other reason I wanted to do it this way was because these people are my friends. These are the gays of our lives. This is what our communities look like. They are multiracial, they do have multiple genders, and at the same time, I’m making a very intentional choice, which is what I’ve always done in my curating. I’m making an intentional choice to represent as many identities as possible. To amplify the voices of people of color and trans and gender non-conforming people. Fat people and sex workers. People of mixed race. I’m mixed-race, Christina is mixed-race, Morgan is mixed-race. And we all look fucking different. That’s very intentional.
SH: I would just add that it’s both intentional and so organic. As in our lives, you don’t sit around and talk about it all the time, on a good day. It doesn’t feel forced. But it’s great to hear you spell it out.
HMÁ: And can I add a little thing quick? We didn’t talk about the topic of sex work. I really appreciate that you didn’t ask a ton of questions about that. I’m anticipating a ton of questions about that. That topic, like the other things you were saying, are just a part of this world, in the communities I’m a part of. We’re people who don’t believe in stigmatizing sex work, we’re working towards decriminalization, and it’s important to have a spectrum of narratives about sex work. Because work in the sex industry is broad. There are hundreds of different stories. And this is one which is very everyday, and it’s something these resilient characters do to survive as people who don’t stigmatize bodies and consensual exchange!
AD: Speaking as a former sex worker myself, I didn’t want to ask that sort of question, but I did want to say that I felt so seen w hen you cut to her and she has her phone in one hand and she’s jerking off the guy with the other. I thought that was right on the money.
HMÀ: You didn’t even have to ask that question, because you already know! Thanks for sharing that with me. It’s been interesting to hear people talk about it. I love not having to explain it. And anyway, it’s actually not about sex work at all. It’s about camaraderie and supporting each other!