Sean Baker is the co-writer and director of The Florida Project — a film that explores the lives of people living in budget motels near Disney World. Baker tells the story through the perspective of Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), a child living in the motel with her single mom Halley (Bria Vinaite). Sojourners spoke with Baker about what he hopes to achieve with this film.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Christina Colón, Sojourners: You said in an interview, “In these crazy times, cinema can be entertainment, and it also can shine a light on issues and make us aware.” I personally couldn’t agree more. And so I was wondering, in a time when TANF, the Affordable Care Act, and other government assistance programs are facing public scrutiny, what do you hope your film will contribute to the conversation?
Sean Baker, director of The Florida Project: You’re actually the first journalist who’s bringing this up. This is an important thing. We’re trying to get our film in front of policy makers. We would like a congressional screening on this. Now what I’m seeing in the area is that there is only so much that the community can actually do without funding. We have the local government, we have an agency who provides social services to the homeless in that area, we have philanthropists, and the private sector all trying but it requires more than that. My hope is that this film is going to take the first step toward shining a light on this issue, that people will want to take action and push for federal funding. I would like to definitely emphasize that this is not just an Orlando problem, this is a national problem. It might be happening under your nose. That’s why they are called the “hidden homeless.” I certainly did not know about this issue before my co-screenwriter brought it to my attention.
Colón: There’s certainly a lot of negative rhetoric surrounding single mothers like Halley. How did you approach the creation of her character, and how do you hope people will receive her?
Baker: It’s very interesting to see the way people react to her character because it’s polarizing. Sometimes you have people saying “I wish my mom had the same love for me,look at the sacrifices that she made,” and you have other people coming out of the screening saying "Thank God Child Protection Services showed up at the end and took the child away from that awful mom.” The point is to start discussion.
...Look at the predicament this woman is in. She was probably 15 when she had Moonee. No formal education. No family support. Whoever Moonee’s father is is not in the picture, so there’s no child support. She has no safety net because she’s unemployable at this point. She’s in survival mode and we have to have at least empathy for that. That’s what I would like people to take from this. Obviously there are going to be different opinions about her as a mother, but my hope is that you will see beyond that and look at the circumstances that have put her in this situation.
Colón: I know that you are trying to partner with as many faith organizations as possible [in the release of this film]. How do you hope faith organizations will respond to this film — and are you a person of faith yourself?
Baker: Well you know — [I hope they respond] with the same compassion that I’ve seen them actually have in the community. You know the Community Hope Center, that we worked with along 192, is faith-based. The organizations and the charities that would bring bread and food to the needy at these motels were faith-based. So I already see this in the religious community. I’ve seen them setting an example of how to act.
Colón: This is not your first film about people living at the margins. Are your films purposefully political? How do you balance artistry and activism, and ensure that the message doesn’t get lost?
Baker: There’s no way to ensure it. It’s a balancing act the whole way, and you never know how people will react — it all comes down to the individual. All I can do is do it in the way that I think is the most responsible and ethical. I believe my films are political, but they’re digestible. Audiences should know that they’re not going into a documentary. They’re not going to be fed statistics. It’s not exactly going to be a social studies lesson. Instead, it will be — at least for the hundred and ten minutes that the film is running — they will be entertained.
...Especially in this day and age, we already are living in tough times… I’ve seen people looking to things like film and television as a means of escape, so I have to acknowledge that people are spending their hard-earned money to go to a movie on a Friday night and want some sort of escape. ...My hope is that along with getting that escape, they will be positively motivated.
Colón: Speaking of inspiration, the ending of your film is truly a lot in so many ways and I’m wondering, in terms of hope, is it a hopeful film? Do you hope people receive it that way?
Baker: It’s hopeful in the way that you can feel a child’s imagination, you can feel a child’s innocence, you can feel a child’s sense of wonder ... there's obviously an inevitable conclusion to what’s happening in Moonee’s story, but there is still hope.
...I want that last minute of the film to put the audience in the mindset of Moonee. We’ve seen her use her imagination and her way of making the best of things throughout her entire summer, and now, in that one minute at the end of the film, the audience gets to see the world through the perspective of a child. And that is, in a way, hopeful.
I don’t want it to be bleak. I don’t want it to be nihilistic. I want there to be a motivation to help change.