Rachel Mason has a terrific energy and brought that to her documentary Circus of Books. In this film, Rachel gets to direct a story that spans an enormous scope: family, queer history, pornography, love, and bringing people together. Circus of Books was a Los Angeles-based pornography store owned by Rachel’s parents. The documentary chronicles not only the history of the store but also gay male history and serves as a family album of sorts. We delve into the backwards philosophy that stigmatizes sex work because, at the end of the day, Rachel’s parents provided visibility, space, and so much more to gay men that was not available.
Watching Rachel tackle so many topics and sharing these honest conversations about her family’s experience along with the gay community makes for an incredibly powerful film. In this beautiful documentary available on Netflix, you also get to delve into the both queer spaces and small businesses disappearing in the modern economy. Rachel has such a deft eye, and tells an incredible story with passion and heart. Check out our conversation below:
Awards Daily: Circus of Books chronicles so many different stories. Let’s start with your parents and family. What was it like to share their story on film?
Rachel Mason: In a strange way I did not know I was going to share their story. I thought I was going to share an important story to gay porn enthusiasts. I thought I was going to tell the story about gay porn in Los Angeles, and tell the story about this industry.
My mother and brother were more generous, and I loved getting to share their stories. My mom was aware the cameras were rolling, and then she would just do her daily routine.
AD: What was it like to experience your brother sharing his different journey with you while you filmed?
RM: It was a truly painful moment for me. Josh had such a dark time in his life. I was a counter culturalist, and here is my little brother who was trying to be a super perfect, uber perfect child. I was the difficult child. Josh was there to be the little perfect child, and I did not have space for him. It was coming to terms with failing to understand his struggle. I was fully ingrained in sexual freedom while he was not. I myself am queer, and Josh is Pete Buttigieg gay. He is not out there waving his freak flag. I wanted to show the multiple sides of queerness in film.
My mom and dad became huge activists in PFLAG. When Josh came out and my dad said you know men can take advantage of men just as much as they can take advantage of women. My dad had just experienced the ravages of AIDS and seen this and my dad was aware of the culture of sex and wanted to support my dad.
My mom ran a gay porn store and was super religious but was so loving. I am so glad I detailed this moment, and regardless of an interviewee’s religion, many of the folks had that experience. Throughout this whole experience, my mother’s views grew and evolved, and it was great to capture this through our film.
AD: You also get to delve into sharing important pieces of the history of the LGBTQ community. Many people from this generation have not been able to pass along this history. What was it like to explore this history?
RM: I appreciate you getting emotions about this. This was a male space, and I am not afraid to say this. There were not many lesbians in the store. AIDs devastated many gay men. These were the men that were so interesting, funny, and told the best stories. I grew up to be the world’s greatest fag hags. Alaska Thunderfuck was in the store and worked there before she became Alaska. I made this film to preserve their memory and of those people. I made this to preserve the work and honor these men.
Just a year ago drafting legislation, the government wrote in a line to eliminate supporting anyone in the sex industry for COVID relief. We are still in the space where anyone who does sex work or works in the adult industry is not seen as a full person.
People look at Karen and Barry, and see the people in the film, who have helped a generation. When people talk about porn and they talk about it in a negative way, they are talking about straight porn. I am always in a gay space. I am mostly talking about gay porn. At this point in time this was one of the few ways gay men could see themselves represented on screen. The actual conversation about porn. The first time I saw a magazine about queer men and held that in my hands
Ryan Murphy said this store existed in a space when nothing else existed for queer men. Ryan has done this with all of his historical pieces. He is filling in the gaps, and to figure out how marginalized gay people were. Gay people did not see themselves even holding hands. To walk into a store and see this on full display. For Ryan to put his name and reputation on the line for awards attention is incredibly brave. I think that is where on some level we have puzzle pieces that are not put there, and Ryan has leaned into joy and trauma equally and I am eternally grateful.
AD: Pornography has a fascinating journey in this country. We get to hear from Larry Flynt, for example, and the Supreme Case verbiage is spoken about too. How did working on this film inform your understanding of the intersection between this work and it’s place in our society?
RM: I do not know if it’s the universe or fate. I met my partner during the roll of film. My partner is a trans man in the porn industry, named Buck Angel.
One of the things I learned from rolling out the film, and seeing his experience. The stigma of porn is so present. Buck has shared that he is very proud of his work in porn. That is so radical. When my mom would try to create a euphemism, Buck speaks out loud and states this proudly.
I am sitting writing here with a person who pays taxes, employs people, and when he was filling out his COVID relief paperwork it shared they were not eligible. People talk about porn as if it’s the only addiction. Potato chips are addictive, should we outlaw there. To prevent people from federal relief is crazy. My film made a huge splash, and there has been a huge interest.
The film is connected to the pandemic and maintaining the modern small businesses, and watching people deal with a crisis, and be resilient and come together. The film is a positive message about holding people together in a time of crisis. When we are fighting for marginalized workers, sex work is still so targeted.
AD: What are you working on now?
RM: I have a couple projects. One of my really exciting projects is tracking a murder in the gay community that was never solved. It puts together puzzle pieces of the historical world and record for gay men in late 80s/early 90s.
A sci-fi indie musical, which deals with gender at the core. Also in the very immediate I am working on a short film about an influencer, and the film takes a journey into the Nexium cult. It explores how women are able to pray upon other women with regard to perfection.