…find commonalities with others around you. Find commonalities more than differences, so that you can empathize, and realize that we need to share this earth with everyone. The more we connect with empathy, the more we will do what is right for this world and each other.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Mason.
Rachel Mason most recently directed the Netflix Original Documentary CIRCUS OF BOOKS, Executive Produced by Ryan Murphy. The film chronicles the eponymous iconic bookstore and gay porn shop that served as the epicenter for LGBT life and culture in Los Angeles. Unbeknownst to many in the community it served, the store was cultivated and cared for by Masonʼs parents, Karen and Barry, a straight conservative Jewish couple. CIRCUS OF BOOKS is an intimate portrait of the Masons and their accidental journey to become one of the biggest distributors of hardcore gay porn in the United States. Mason also wrote and performs the end credit song, “Give You Everything”.
Best known in visual art and experimental music circles for her fantastical mixed-media performances, Mason has toured and exhibited at festivals including SXSW and Tribeca, and museums including the Whitney Museum, Queens Museum, LACMA, Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art. She has been praised in the New York Times, Village Voice, Los Angeles Times, Flash Art, Art in America, Art News, and Artforum, among other publications. Her first feature film, THE LIVES OF HAMILTON FISH, premiered at Raindance in the UK and has toured festivals and museums internationally. HAMILTON FISH is an art-house murder-ballad musical based on a true coincidence: two men died on the same day in 1936, both named Hamilton Fish, one a statesman, the other a serial killer.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
When I lived in New York, I worked in a nursing home and as an assistant to Joan Jonas. I was never without a sideline, and often that sideline can be the more interesting work. I tried every imaginable way to earn a living from my art, but when I realized the “art” side of my profession was not sustaining me financially OR on a deeper level, my passion shifted to performing. If I was going to work this hard at something that made no money, I should at least enjoy it. I loved making art, but I didn’t like socializing in the gallery/museum environment. I also didn’t like hoping that someone with a lot of money would come around and buy my work. I would rather have more people access my work for a smaller amount of money.
Teaching fine art was also an unsustainable career path for me. Getting teaching gigs was a hustle like anything else, and I would rather hustle at booking live shows or trying to raise money for my next movie. I also felt that it was unethical to encourage students into an unsustainable career track, so whenever I had the opportunity to teach, I tried to share my own experiences: the traps I fell into, student loan debt, trying to cobble together a living. I moved away from teaching art on an academic level and am lucky enough to have found a different way to make money. Film is by no means easier; it has just been a likelier source of income and I am able to make work that matters to me.
Once I stopped expecting to earn a living from art, I was able to approach it with a lot more freedom. After switching over to film, I realized that I actually love the business side of the creative world. I find some aspects of financing large projects to be really creative. And I’ll never give up performing — I see it as another branch of what I do and what I will always do, I can’t stop making music.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m very excited to be diving into a story that is an unsolved mystery that took place in 1989. A horrific and brutal murder of a gay porn star in 1990. I am calling the project Vaseline Alley- as the overarching title because that is the name of the little strip where many sexual experiences happened- and which also served to hide the crime of this young man.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
The people that create their own worlds are the most inspiring to me. And by that, I mean people like Frida Kahlo, or perhaps a contemporary like Alejandro Joderowsky. Their work is almost indefinable, and they forged a path that was outside of the mainstream, and completely unique. These are visionary artists in my mind- who never let the rules of society affect their work.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
After making Circus of Books, I met the love of my life, Buck Angel, and the “aha” moment came when I realized I have a unique perspective on the adult industry which few have. I am able to tell stories and give perspective on the double life that many people in this industry live- because they operate in a path that is deemed shameful by society at large. I became committed to stories which intersect with sex workers- and I really want to be able to do what I can for people who exist in these margins.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Well, I get emails almost daily from people who have watched Circus of Books that tell me they felt seen in it- and that they saw their own story in my film. That is something that is so huge and really allows me to feel the impact of the film.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
The most important thing we can do in the effort to destigmatize sex work and LGBTQ people is to encourage policies all over the world, which do not discriminate against them. Encourage those who are making their efforts to fight for rights where currently those rights don’t exist.
What is something you wish someone had told you when you first and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I wish someone had told me that the special thing that I have, my gift, my particular vision, is something that is actually needed. I somehow got the feeling that I was always having to desperately knock on doors and that I wouldn’t be let in — as the large narrative of our culture, is that of “get in line” and “you’re not worthy” especially as an artist. But I started to have confidence only recently when I realized that the thing I bring is very unique, very specific, and has its audience, as long as I know that it is really needed in the world. I’m not working in a little vacuum.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
One thing — I would say, find commonalities with others around you. Find commonalities more than differences, so that you can empathize, and realize that we need to share this earth with everyone. The more we connect with empathy, the more we will do what is right for this world and each other.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I’d love to collaborate with Bjork because I have a film which is a musical about the cosmos (Black Holes specifically). I just know that she would love it- and as I build everything around it, I come back to her with this vision, that she would really be someone that would find it inspiring.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This one just came recently — from Larry Flynt’s assistant who I was speaking to about the amazing ability he had to just do what he wanted to do and defy all rules. “If you Don’t Ask, You Don’t get.”
How can our readers follow you online?
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!