‘The other side of the American Dream:’ Film about poor kids at Disney’s gates is a hit

Director Sean Baker and actor Willem Dafoe attend the Hammer Museum Presents The Contenders 2017- “The Florida Project” at The Hammer Museum on December 13, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (AFP)
Updated 16 December 2017

‘The other side of the American Dream:’ Film about poor kids at Disney’s gates is a hit

PARIS: It is already the fairy tale of this year’s Oscars race: A little film about homeless children living in the shadow of Walt Disney World in Florida that threatens to turn the tables on the big-budget favorites.
Director Sean Baker, who shot his last film on an iPhone, has scored a surprise hit with a gritty yet heartwarming tale, “The Florida Project.”
It has already been showered with prizes by US critics, usually reliable pointers for the Oscars, and has made the lists for best film of the year on both sides of the Atlantic.
Not bad for a movie that no one initially wanted to back and whose rookie lead actor Baker found on Instagram.
Driven by the remarkable performances he drew from Bria Vinaite as a tattooed single mother living hand-to-mouth in a motel with her seven-year-old daughter (Brooklynn Prince), the film has built a head of steam since it premiered at the Cannes film festival in May.
“I am happy for my actors,” Baker told AFP, “because they deserve it, but I try not to take anything too seriously.”
“It is not why I made the film,” said the director, who was partly inspired by the rascally spirit of the “Our Gang” street kid comedy films, which were hugely popular during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Baker went to live in a budget hotel along the Kissimmee Strip that leads from Disney World to see for himself how people struggle to make ends meet within sight of the theme park that bills itself as “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
“I am drawn to these kind of stories, the other side of the American Dream — those that are left behind,” Baker said.
“You have this population living in budget hotels underneath signs trying to sell a dream to tourists, yet the people living there cannot afford the things being pushed into their face.”
In this lurid landscape of gun shops, ice cream parlours and chain restaurants, the film’s child heroes play, hustle and cause havoc, frequently testing the patience of the motel’s long-suffering manager, played by Willem Dafoe.
Baker shot the film in almost a documentary style at the bright purple Magic Castle motel in Kissimmee, using mostly amateur actors, the hotel’s residents and passing tourists as extras, even giving some of them small speaking parts.
“I wanted a real environment and I wanted the community to be involved,” he said.
Baker insisted that his child stars also came from Florida, and even found one — the remarkable Valeria Cotto, then five — in a nearby Target superstore.
“I gave my card to her mother and I remember the look on her face. She obviously was very suspicious because my cards have my dogs on them. I will have to change that,” he laughed.
Baker, 46, had never worked with children before — “it was a long and patient process” — yet managed to weave tough adult themes into the story.
“We see it almost through the viewpoint of a child. Most of the adult themes are off camera. There’s a degree of candy coating to everything,” Baker said.
Like his acclaimed breakthrough movie “Tangerine,” a strangely life-affirming portrait of a transgender sex worker which he shot on a phone, “The Florida Project” has been praised for the subtlety of its storytelling.
Its authentic feel had one US journalist asking Baker “how I got Willem Dafoe to be in my documentary.”
First he wanted to cast Britney Spears as Halley, the wayward but loving mother — little more than a child herself — attempting to live by her wits alone.
But as time went on the idea of someone so rich and famous playing someone trapped in poverty began to “feel weird.”
Then he found Lithuanian-born Vinaite on Instagram and brought her to Florida, and then shot her and the children horsing around the motel on his iPhone.
It was there the electrifying chemistry between her and Brooklynn Prince was born.
“One day Brooklynn sat on her lap and they sang some top 20 song that I had never heard of and I thought, This is perfect!” the director said.
Prince, who was only six when the film was made, is now being tipped for an Oscar nod as best supporting actress.
Baker described her as “wonderful,” improvising one of the film’s funniest lines herself.
With “a steady, very well-rounded family” behind her, he said she was revelling in the buzz of its pre-Oscars publicity tour.
“It is usually the adults who are the tired ones, saying, ‘Can we just go home?’“

Musical truth: Palestinian singer Maysa Daw blends the personal with the political

Updated 18 September 2018

Musical truth: Palestinian singer Maysa Daw blends the personal with the political

  • Maysa Daw is a young Palestinian singer
  • A guitar-driven singer-songwriter, Daw is a bundle of indie energy

DUBAI: Maysa Daw is a hard person to pin down. The young Palestinian singer has been busy dashing from gig to gig, completing an album and preparing to participate in a musical collaboration called the Basel-Ramallah Project, which is due to take place in Switzerland on Oct. 6. When we meet, she is in Chicago, about to go on stage at Palipalooza.

“We’ve been working on our solo show and I’m trying to write a few new songs but time isn’t exactly on my side at the moment,” she said with a laugh. “But writing always comes in-between things, you know. I’m always having these new ideas and I write them down, or new melodies and I write them down. At some point I’ll just gather them together and a lot of things will come from there.”

A guitar-driven singer-songwriter, Daw is a bundle of indie energy. Her live performances are raw and honest, her music a primarily personal reaction to the world around her. As a Palestinian living inside the Green Line, this can sometimes mean a world of conflict and complication.

“I always write about what I’m experiencing, what I’m feeling, or the anger that I’m feeling,” said Daw, whose debut album “Between City Walls” was written while she was living in Jaffa.

“It was a very different world for me. I grew up in Haifa, which is a lot more chill, a lot more relaxed, and suddenly I move to Jaffa and study in Tel Aviv, and everything was so intense. Everything was so new. It produced a lot of stuff. Love songs, break-up songs — political songs, too.

“There’s also one of my favorite songs, “Crazy.” I was so frustrated when I started writing this song. I was thinking of so many things at the time and I just wrote everything down. It’s exactly the way I was feeling, the things that I was asking myself. It talks about religion, it talks about death, it talks about politics — it talks about a lot of things.”

“Between City Walls,” which was released in June last year, may be indie in its sensibilities but its eight songs embrace a variety of sounds, not all of which are musical. Alongside samples of classical Arabic songs and Spanish guitar there are bursts of radio static and live voice recordings of people in the West Bank. As such, reproducing the album on stage, with drummer Issa Khoury and bassist Shadi Awidat, has not been easy.

“We’ve been trying to put material for a five-piece band into a three-piece band,” said Daw. “As such, we’ve been using more electronics and it’s been a very interesting challenge for us. But it’s got us to a place that I’m definitely very happy with.”

Daw is very much a product of Haifa. Born into an artistic family — her father is the actor Salim Dau — she immersed herself in the city’s independent Arabic-music scene, performing at venues such as Kabareet and collaborating with Ministry of Dub-Key, a Galilean group that fuses the sounds of hip-hop and dancehall with traditional Palestinian dabke.

She also recently finished recording an album with Palestinian hip-hop group DAM, who she joined about five years ago. Due to be released early next year, the as-yet-untitled album is her first full-length collaboration with the group. Prior to this, Daw and DAM recorded two tracks together, including the feminism-infused “Who You Are.”

Although Daw’s work gravitates toward the personal, much of it also can be viewed as intrinsically political. The song “Come with Me,” for example, is about two lovers kept apart by the separation wall, while “Radio” features the voices of refugees living in the West Bank. In snippets of their conversations you can hear them talking about the wall, the effects it has on their lives and their desire to tear it down.

“I do talk about politics but only because it’s a big part of my life, whether I want it to be or not. And believe me, I don’t,” she said. “But it is a part of my life.

“I started loving music way before I even understood what politics is. I only wanted to make music but with time I understood more about the responsibility that I could accept to have.”

She paused and corrected herself: “Not exactly a responsibility but a sort of a privilege. I have this voice that I can use and it has the potential to reach a lot of people. It made me realize that I can use this to talk about things that many other people can’t talk about.”

Daw once said that despite the perceived mundanity of everyday events, “everything we do here as Arabs is connected to politics.” As such, there is a vein of resistance running through much of her work. She sings of love under occupation, equality, society and religion, with freedom the ultimate objective.

“A lot of the time I write for the purpose of trying to tell somebody something, or trying to express my opinion about something,” she said. “And sometimes I just feel this thing that’s blocking me, that I need to release in any way, and my way of releasing it is through music.

“Sometimes I release something just for myself. I write it, I turn it into a song and I don’t release it to the world, because sometimes some things are too private. I still do it, I still work on a song and I still do it in a way that I absolutely love the song, yet it will never be heard by anybody else.”

One song on her debut album is sung in English, titled “Live Free.”

“You know, when I started making music and writing my own songs I started writing in English,” she said. “I didn’t feel comfortable doing it in Arabic. And at some point I realized that it was a little bit strange for me, because the whole personality of a person changes when you change language.

“I wanted to start writing in Arabic to see what it would bring, and it brought a very new side of me that I didn’t know. Everything was different: the melodies, the type of words I used, how I built sentences — something just clicked. Arabic feels a lot more like home when writing music.”