Berliner Tageblatt - Sean Baker: chronicler of sex work, Palme d'Or winner

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Sean Baker: chronicler of sex work, Palme d'Or winner
Sean Baker: chronicler of sex work, Palme d'Or winner / Photo: © AFP

Sean Baker: chronicler of sex work, Palme d'Or winner

Sean Baker, who won the Cannes Film Festival's top prize on Saturday, has spent a career chronicling the lives of sex workers and porn stars.

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The leading US indie director, with an obsession for society's underbelly, took the Palme d'Or with "Anora", a movie about a exotic dancer marrying into money.

"This is to all sex workers, past, present and future. This is for you," he said in his acceptance speech.

"Anora" follows an affair between a New York escort, played by Mikey Madison, and the young son of a Russian oligarch.

They marry on a whim in Las Vegas, sparking the fury of his relatives. And what begins as a modern Cinderella story becomes free-wheeling farce.

Baker, 53, has portrayed the lives of prostitutes in several films, including "Tangerine" and "The Florida Project".

Speaking to AFP earlier during the Cannes festival, Baker said "we are all fascinated" by sex work.

In part, that is because it is right under our noses, whether we notice it or not.

"No joke -- from my kitchen, I can literally look into a happy endings massage parlour," said Baker.

"It can be explored forever," added the director, who said his mission was to show flawed characters dealing with the same mundane issues as everybody else.

"I can't make just -- and excuse my terminology here, because it's an old term -- a 'hooker with a heart of gold' story", he said.

- 'Tangerine' -

Initiated in cinema by his mother, a teacher, Baker got the bug at the age of six, when he saw Boris Karloff playing the monster in "Frankenstein".

He made his first feature, "Four Letter Words", as a student at New York University, but his life went downhill in his twenties because of a heroin addiction.

Emerging from that dark place, Baker was determined to stay in the industry, even if he was just clinging on by his fingernails.

He was a long way from following in the footsteps of his heroes -- John Cassavetes, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh -- but his story was not over yet.

It was "Starlet", his 2012 indie drama about a porn actress, that got him interested in chronicling the lives of sex workers.

That film put him in touch with prostitutes, escorts and exotic dancers, many of whom became friends.

"We all have different opinions about sex work," he said, which is why "it can be explored forever".

His next film, "Tangerine", was shot on iPhones and followed two trans prostitutes through the streets of Los Angeles on one crazy day.

Comedic yet heart-wrenching, it was a critical hit after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.

He followed it with "The Florida Project", about a six-year-old girl living in a cheap motel with her mother, a stripper who loses her job and begins soliciting sex work online.

Willem Dafoe was pretty much the only professional actor on the set. He earned an Oscar nomination.

Bria Vinaite, who plays the struggling mother, was discovered by Baker on Instagram, while one of the child actors, Valeria Cotto, was spotted in a supermarket.

- 'What a film like this needs' -

That success led to Baker's first invitation to compete for the Palme d'Or at Cannes, with "Red Rocket".

The tale of a porn star's awkward homecoming was shot on the fly and practically in secret in Texas during the Covid pandemic.

Actor Simon Rex, mostly known for appearances in the slapstick "Scary Movie" franchise, had to play a porn star with a monstrous ego grooming a young girl, and somehow still make him likeable.

While that film did not collect the Cannes top prize, Baker's second Palme d'Or entry prevailed against competition from Francis Ford Coppola and David Cronenberg -- whom he credited as two of his biggest inspirations.

Baker expressed surprise at the unanimously positive response to his latest work, saying that "it hasn't been as divisive as I thought it would be".

Insisting that he would rather see his star, Madison, win a prize at Cannes rather than him, he said any Cannes accolade would help the film gain attention in his native United States.

"I think that's what a film like this needs," he told AFP.