Flu$h: Removing Outdated concepts of Sex Work and Sexuality

Sex work is a subject that you don’t often see explored in mainstream American media, especially not in a positive or neutral light. So when I stumbled across short film Flu$h by chance at this year’s Outfest I was immediately hooked. Presenting a side of sex work within the queer world that is rarely explored, Flu$h shows a group of friends and lovers who are simply being themselves – living – and having fun doing it. We caught up with writer/director Heather María Ács to discuss her inspiration and upcoming projects.

What inspired you to create Flu$h?

Flu$h is a love letter to my communities and a gift to the world beyond. I tell stories about queer, radical, intersectional subcultures and queer femme-ininities with a punk/d.i.y. aesthetic. The characters in my projects are outsiders, artists, activists, hustlers-individuals who rally against the status quo in order to survive and thrive in a destructive world. It is through this divergence and its challenges that they find joy, mutual support, love, and freedom in a world that does everything possible to keep them from being free.

Underground, queer art movements have been my home as a creator and organizer for years. I co-founded Heels on Wheels, a gender-inclusive, femme-inine spectrum performance group that produced an annual d.i.y. tour, a queer artists’ salon in Brooklyn, and a LAMBDA Literary award-winning queer performance anthology. After years of focusing on live performance, I was ready for a new challenge. Having spent a fair amount of time on indie and professional sets, I felt ready to delve into this format. In my heart, I knew, it was time to make beautiful, high production-value, subcultural content showcasing the most talented professionals that my queer communities have to offer.

We are in a very interesting moment where I see more “outsider” characters in the media than ever before. In the last few years, there has been an unprecedented thirst for trans and queer actors/narratives. However, just because Hollywood is “curious” about our stories, does not guarantee they will tell these stories with respect, accuracy, or care. Representation matters, and it is imperative that we are in control of our own narratives. It is crucial that we have access to the equipment and resources necessary to tell our own stories. It is vital that we believe in ourselves and feel empowered to dive into and complete this challenge.

My communities are full of talented, gorgeous, professionals. We may not always have access to resources, but I am committed to finding ways to make beautiful films with, not only, incredible, diverse casts, but with a crew and post-production team that prioritize queer people, people of color, trans and nonbinary folks, women and other identities marginalized in the industry. My communities deserve to see ourselves represented in the highest quality level work. So I started, FemmePower Productions.

FemmePower Productions commits to intersectional equity both on screen and behind the scenes. Representation in front of the camera is not enough. Our cast and crew of industry professionals represent multiple and intersectional identities, including queer, POC, trans, nonbinary, mixed-race, working-class, immigrant, and fat-identified. We create the change we want to see in media and entertainment. We believe in abundance – that there is not only room, but an urgent need for a multiplicity of queer stories that represent numerous, intersectional identities in all the genres we want – comedy, romance, fantasy, sci-fi, not just stories based on identity.

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It is very rare to see sex work discussed in American media in anything other than a biased, negative dialogue. Is that an issue that you intended to address in your film?

This film is the first in a series of shorts, so I was working on multiple stories. This is the one that wanted to come first. Sometimes people say that stories or characters choose you, and Flu$h demanded to be first in line. Though sex work is a part of the story, it is really just a detail in the aesthetic of this queer, underground world, which is intentional. It’s simply a part of the everyday lives of these queer outsiders who don’t believe in shame around sexuality, bodies, kink, capital, and consensual exchange. Yes, Flu$h offers a counter-narrative to negative portrayals of sex work and kink by fusing humor and authenticity, AND the true heart of this film centers on the support of a sweetheart and the camaraderie between friends. In Flu$h, sex work is not fetishized or demonized – it is one of many tools our resilient characters use to survive in a broken system.

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What do you think can be done to increase community awareness surrounding sex work?

Destigmatize, decriminalize, recognize and respect that sex work is real work. There is a broad spectrum of types of sex work and a range of people who engage in this industry. Of course, the most marginalized people are subject to the most unsafe conditions, violence, and discrimination; people of color, trans women, and trans women of color especially. There are many organizations that participate in activism and advocacy for the rights and protection of sex workers. Survivors Against SESTA is one of the national groups in the U.S. working against SESTA/FOSTA, passed in April 2018, which has increased unsafe working conditions, violence towards sex workers, and workers’ ability to make a living. SWOP-Sex Workers’ Outreach Project is another org with multiple chapters in the U.S. Scarlett Alliance is the national sex worker organisation in Australia.

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The cast of Flu$h is very diverse and features POC, trans, non-binary, and fat-identified actors. What did you look for when putting together your cast?

The world of my film reflects the communities I am a part of – beautifully intersectional with a diversity of genders, races, and bodies. FemmePower Productions has an intentional commitment to work with a diverse group of multiracial queer, trans, and gender variant producers, cast, and crew that includes both emerging talent and industry professionals. So, my casting is both reflective of my communities and intentionally curated. I want to give a diversity of queer actors the chance to star in featured roles reflecting their personal identities, in a narrative where queer characters are centered in the story, rather than playing supporting roles. We have a commitment to representation and our casting networks are diverse, so for Flu$h we have a cast that includes POC, mixed-race, and white actors, as well as white actors that are also mixed-race. Some of the actors were cast based on the characters, and some of the characters are based on the actors.  I wanted to represent multiple types of workers, so, I wrote a trans-masculine character that puts on femme “drag” to do the session because that’s a real experience for many people that is underrepresented. Then we looked for a trans-masculine actor who was comfortable playing that role, because not everyone would be, which is completely legitimate. We found the wonderful and talented, Morgan Sullivan, a trans-male actor who was excited about the “double role” of both Owen and Cookie. I intentionally included a trans-feminine character, whom Summer Minerva plays in her own, personal, unique trans-feminine, non-binary gender. I also wanted to cast someone who identifies as a fat femme, so we found Christine Davitt, the only “non-actor” in our cast, who graces the screen with gorgeous sass. Roxy and Wrex are the two main characters. I play Roxy – so she’s high femme – and Wrex wasn’t written with a specific gender in mind. I knew I wanted to work with T.L. Thompson, one of my favorite actors, so eventually, I started writing specifically for them. T.L. has an expansive gender, but how the character identifies on a masculine spectrum is never specified in the movie, which I love because this film is not about explaining ourselves. I wanted to have an all queer/gay cast, so the straight, client character is played by Jeremy Lawrence, who identifies as a gay man. I think he’s hilarious as the straight client and love that his personal work includes drag and Tennessee Williams!

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Watching Flu$h was incredibly refreshing. It is a film with so many layers, that touches on a variety of vital issues complete with a humorous tone. Would you say that comedy is your preferred genre as a filmmaker?

I still get surprised sometimes when people tell me I’m funny. For the longest time, I thought of myself as a very serious performance artist, exploring very serious topics. (If you think about it, that is a really funny character – a performance artist that’s serious about being serious. Being really serious is so funny!) I finally accepted the truth and came to realize the power of humor. Humor invites an audience in, allows them to relax. You can feel how an audience settles after a good laugh. They are often more willing to engage, listen, go along on the journey. Then you hit ‘em with the hard stuff! Haha, just kidding, but… I do love the juxtaposition between humor and heartbreak. Humor has been a tool for survival for oppressed communities throughout history – a way to poke back against the status quo, a way to get through the day. Often, we have to laugh to keep from crying or end up laughing through tears. I’m interested in this tension. It can also feel good to give ourselves permission to laugh at ourselves. I am interested in the nuances, flaws, and especially humor found in radical communities. Humor is rarely associated with political radicals, but always present. Between our idiosyncracies and passionate moral commitments, there’s a lot of potential hilarity. I think it can be humbling and healing to have a laugh at ourselves now and then.

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Flu$h has been making the festival circuit around the country. How does it feel to have your work viewed and appreciated by so many people?

This festival programming is a big win for our little film. Flu$h premiered at Outfest, Los Angeles, one of the most prestigious Queer/LGBT film festivals in the world, preceding the new Joan Jett documentary, Bad Reputation (Sundance 2018). I was thrilled to receive this programming slot because it meant the committee recognized the nuance of the narrative and the rebellious spirits of the characters. A programmer from another festival explained to me that this was a coveted spot because Joan Jett brings an audience, so you can’t take chances when pairing that line-up. Plus it was at a huge, gorgeous outdoor amphitheatre and there was a Joan Jett cover band!! Who gets an opening band at a film premiere?? Both strangers and respected art/culture makers expressed how much they loved the film throughout the festival, including you from Subvrt! It was an incredible experience. We had our New York City premiere at Newfest LGBT Film Festival (Oct 25 and 28), which was special because it was our hometown screening. The next step is to get the film online, so we can share it with an even wider audience.

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Your production company FemmePower Productions focuses on placing marginalised artists in front of and behind the camera. Can you tell us about any upcoming projects that you may be working on?

Flu$h is the first film produced in a planned series of narrative shorts featuring radical and punk, intersectional queer characters in New York City, and their expanded queer universe. The series follows an anthology format, meaning that each short can play alone or they can play together in an episodic format. As the series continues, our characters build community through protests, performance and polyamory, while navigating call-out culture, addiction, and suicide, in order to discover how challenging, beautiful, and ultimately crucial it is to create a chosen family.

FemmePower Productions’ second film follows five characters over the course of an evening at a drag club and queer dance party. The story juxtaposes the heartbreak of a seasoned drag queen struggling to disentangle from a partner with addiction issues and the abandon of young, queers falling in love and discovering polyamory. The stories swirl together as the magic of a queer dance party pulls us in and the transformative power of drag allows us to break free.

Drawing from historical underground films like Go Fish and Suburbia, FemmePower Productions brings subcultural characters to the screen using a strong, narrative format that combines humor and drama in the spirit of current, episodic successes like, Insecure, Vida, Chewing Gum, and High Maintenance. Future casts include queer, trans, and non-binary actors who have played roles on Shameless, Pose, Vida, Nashville, High Maintenance, Transparent, and in many Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. FemmePower Productions is committed to underground content with a high production value aesthetic. We create the change we want to see in media and entertainment. Support FemmePower Productions at www.paypal.me/femmepowermedia

sex work
Writer/Dir. Heather María Ács

Check out Flu$h at our film night at The Lash LA on the 5th December.

Interview by Sara Nicolette.

Subvrtmag

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