'zoombug' is a radically queer musical about racecars and shitty exes
Filmmaker AroMa channeled their anxiety about the passing of time into this 80s femme punk fantasy.
Photography Ana Maria Hernandez
It was a slow day at the San Francisco shoe store where emerging filmmaker AroMa was working when they had an epiphany. “They were playing 80s pop music, and I was jumping around and dancing across the floor and thinking about how fun it would be to be an 80s pop star,” they laugh over the phone. “I was like, ‘What if I was an 80s pop star! What if I made an 80s mixtape!”
The Oakland native had been making performance art pieces and music videos for artists in the Bay Area for a couple of years, but had never made their own music before beginning their latest project, a retro-futuristic punk fantasy called ZoomBug, which premieres today on i-D. Its name was inspired by the momentum of 80s music and June bugs, “the beatles that come out in the summertime.”
ZoomBug defies categorization, falling somewhere between a visual album and a short film, but AroMa calls it a musical short film. Clocking in at just under 20 minutes, with an eclectic soundtrack composed by AroMa and producer Ari Carpenter and performed by the cast, ZoomBug turned out to be their most expansive collaboration yet. “I thought it was going to be a fun little summer project with my friends,” they recall, still laughing. “And then it just turned into this much bigger ordeal. It’s definitely not something that we could have accomplished without the help of many people.”
Having always created visuals for other people’s music, AroMa wanted to challenge themselves by writing a story and then scoring it themselves. “Instead of already having the music to go off, I wanted to know what the process would be like if it was the opposite.” The result is a heartfelt film about friendship, fast cars, and our complicated relationship with time. It’s like if Gregg Araki made a radical queer musical on a shoestring in the Bay Area.
ZoomBug opens with Kez (played by AroMa) and their friends Stemma (Jin), Yanna (Elena Ruiz), Loon (Michelle Zhu), and Fawmsy (Anthony Torrez) lounging in a brightly colored bedroom, bored and listless. “The best days of our lives and we’re just wasting away,” laments Stemma, lying on a shaggy turquoise rug with thick black tears painted on their cheeks. “If only we could outrun time itself!” This pipe dream becomes a real pursuit after Kez is unceremoniously dumped by their boyfriend Zad, a race car driver. A competition to race against him and win his super-fast car presents the friends with the opportunity to salve Kez’s heartbreak and the group’s time troubles in one fell swoop.
ZoomBug’s surreal timewarp storyline was inspired by the director’s real-life anxieties about time, which they have dealt with since the eve of their 10th birthday. “I realized that once you hit double digits that’s it, you can never go back to single digits. Something about the concept of things ending forever and not being able to go back just freaked me out,” they admit. “So every year after that I would have horrible panic attacks on the eve of my birthday.”
Now 21 years old, AroMa has thankfully been able to overcome these anxieties, and by addressing them in ZoomBug, they ground the story in reality. After all, who hasn’t agonized over the passing of time as a teenager? It’s like a rite of passage. In acknowledgement of this, AroMa and their crew showed ZoomBug to three sold-out crowds in August, a time when many people are either returning to school or starting their next chapter. “It’s a period where a lot of people feel shifts happening in their lives – one time is ending and another is beginning,” AroMa explains. “So I wanted to show it in Oakland at that time, because it speaks to that experience.”
The film also speaks to the increased recognition of queer POC in the arts. AroMa identifies as a queer nonbinary femme, and considers their character Kez to be nonbinary. There’s something about watching this diverse group of individuals literally overtake a guy who’s wronged one of them, and then hijack his race car — a symbol of masculinity — that feels very poetic.
“It was funny, because the community I’m in in the Bay Area is a lot of POC queer folks — obviously, because I am also a POC queer folk,” AroMa says. “But even with the lead relationship maybe appearing as heterosexual, a lot of queer people are like, ‘This film is incredibly queer,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s accurate!’ Because I’m also a queer director, I’m a queer artist, so everything I make I feel like has queerness in it.”
For all its weighty subject matter, ZoomBug is a seriously fun ride. From the kaleidoscopic makeup and color palette to the 80s props and meticulously detailed sets, AroMa and their crew created an amazing universe for the ZoomBug characters to inhabit. And with each scene featuring a different song, spanning playful punk to soulful R&B to angry heavy-metal hip-hop, it keeps you guessing at every turn.
AroMa is currently organizing a screening of ZoomBug in New York, where they recently relocated, and they’ve already started planning their next project. Called Moon Baby, it will discuss “coping mechanisms for trauma and childhood abuse,” they say, and because of this heavier subject matter they hope to hold “community healing spaces” after the screenings. “So it goes beyond just giving this piece of art but also creating space for them to process and talk about it,” they explain.
With ZoomBug AroMa found the drive to tell stories that are very close to their heart, and it appears they’re just getting started.
“ZoomBug” will screen in New York soon. For more information, follow the film on Instagram .