Tangerine director Sean Baker’s new film The Florida Project addresses the real-life plight of America’s homeless — depicting how people who have lost their homes or are unable to rent housing take shelter in daily-rate motels, a next to last step before living on the streets. The feature centers on the playful children and families of a fictional South Floridian community, one that closely resembles those families he met while researching the movie. Living in poverty and underemployed, these dwellers are a stone’s throw from Disney World and always just one personal disaster away from having no roof over their head. “There are these areas of the tourist capital of the world that are blighted and we don’t even know it,” Baker said.
So on Sunday, Baker drew attention to one such disaster — Hurricane Irma — as he introduced The Florida Project to audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it made its North American premiere. The powerful storm was ripping through southern Florida just as the movie revealed its tale about a very real social issue. Watching the film, it was easy to see what — and who — is upended as a storm of this magnitude rips through housing and businesses.
“It’s distressing. It’s scary,” Baker told BuzzFeed News after the screening. He’s been in touch with some of the Floridians he met while filming — including folks who inspired the colorful characters in his film — to see how they were preparing for Irma. “They’re riding it out, as you say. … My prayers, my hopes, my thoughts are with them.”
The Florida Project purposefully centered on a cluster of motels outside a major tourist attraction, offering a juxtaposition of a kid’s perception and one of reality. But as Baker said, “We were trying to shine a light on something that’s actually a national problem. What we’re commenting on blatantly and overtly is the hidden homeless situation, the poverty in general. [The film] shouldn’t be looked at in any way what I feel about Florida in particular.”
Baker said that at another screening, somebody asked him who the villain in his film was. “We’re not pointing fingers. More than anything, the villain is the recession of ‘08 and the housing crisis. By living in motels … you can literally have people living week to week or night to night and if they can’t come up with that $35, they’re $35 from being on the street.”
Since finishing the film, Baker and A24 films have been adopting social outreach campaigns to raise awareness about the country’s homeless. He said he felt “hopeful” about what local governments and even tourist franchises themselves — including Disney — have been doing to help support their communities, but that he would love to see more participation on a federal level to eradicate housing crises so that they don’t turn into homeless crises. Which is why, at the end of the month, there will be a congressional screening of the film; it opens nationally on Oct. 6. “It will actually take very little money to have more shelters and for low-income housing,” Baker said. “You can look into your own local situation. Every community pretty much has this problem.”