By David-Elijah Nahmod, December 2015 Web Exclusive.
Director Sean Baker's latest film, Tangerine, garnered a great deal of attention when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015.
Shot with hand-held cameras, this a quasi-documentary is a seriocomic tale that offers a no-holds-barred look into the hard lives of transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles.
The low-budget production further impressed audiences when it was revealed that Baker shot his film with an iPhone.
"I had to convince myself that this was the right move," Baker told Echo. "At first it felt like stepping back, but technology has advanced so it’s now possible – you have to embrace the aesthetic."
Shooting with the iPhone proved to be an asset to the small, intimate production.
"The benefits of the iPhone revealed themselves as we were shooting," Baker said. "Tangerine would have been a different film if it had been shot with a 35mm camera. The iPhone was perfect for this kind of film, as I was trying to capture street life."
Most impressively, the final product has a polished and professional look.
"Moon Dog Labs created an anamorphic adapter that fit over the iPhone lens," Baker said. "This elevated the film to a cinematic level."
Another impressive aspect of Tangerine is the appearances by several famous Hollywood faces, including actor Clu Gulager. Now 86 years old, Gulager's extensive career includes long stints as a cowboy on 1960s TV series' such as “The Virginian and The Tall Man.” In Tangerine, the still-active performer is seen in a brothel.
"Clu came to me, he's a fan of my previous films, and said if you ever need me, I'm there," Baker recalled.
James Ransone, a rising star whose film and TV credits include “Law and Order” and “CSI,” is wonderfully over-the-top as a foul-mouthed pimp who operates his business out of a doughnut shop.
And finally, openly gay comic Jason Stuart has a cameo as the doorman at a the Hollywood Cabaret.
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, two transgender actresses, head the cast as Sin-Dee and Alexandra, respectivly. Both are hard boiled street prostitutes and best friends. That friendship is tested as Sin-Dee searches Hollywood and West Hollywood for Dinah, the cisgender woman who her fiance (James Ransone) slept while Sin-Dee was in jail.
The camera follows the two women around town as they meet up with a variety of shady characters, including a married Armenian cab driver who has a fetish for transwomen. Baker noted that the film's Armenian cast members are all celebrities in their home country.
Set on Christmas Eve, Tangerine effectively captures the harshness of street life and the dangers that transgender prostitutes face. Baker addressed concerns that have come from within the trans community regarding the constant portrayals of trans women as prostitutes in popular culture.
"We made a film about a small microcosm," he said. "It’s a film about sex workers and about a location, as much as its about trans people."
The film captures a reality about trans life, Baker argues.
"Unemployment is extreme among trans people. Many are forced into the underground economy – sex work and drugs," he pointed out. "This exists. To ignore it is still marginalizing. I want to humanize these characters – there's so much shaming, and that's not a fair thing. These are characters that anyone can identify with."
According to Baker, Tangerine could possibly be the first film in which trans characters – in lead roles – are played by trans actresses.
Tangerine is now available on DVD and Blu Ray.