While vacationing in the South during the summer of 2003, Brooklyn filmmaker Cameron Yates read a local newspaper story about Jeannette Maier, a convicted New Orleans madam who had run a brothel with her mother and daughter. Intrigued, he tracked her down at a halfway house, and what started as a three-hour phone conversation turned into Yates’ first feature documentary. Seven years in the making, The Canal Street Madam follows Maier as she tries to rebuild her life and her family, post-prison. Yates has worked with several major film festivals, including Sundance, and his first film, a half-hour documentary about four pages working for the Virginia House of Delegates, premiered on PBS in 2003. Currently filming in the Louisiana bayou, 29-year-old Yates took a break to catch up with BrooklynTheBorough.com over the phone. He talked about life as a Southern Brooklynite and the challenges of filming The Canal Street Madam, which premieres in New York this Friday at BAMcinemaFEST.
How did you get into filmmaking?
As a kid, I always had a camera around and was shooting little films with friends. But in high school, I went on a trip with a few teacher to a church in Pennsylvania where there were so called apparitions of the Virgin Mary. I took my camera and filmed pilgrims who came to the church, along with the priest and interviewed people. That was the first time when I really started into documentary.
What inspires you to make new work?
I worked with Albert Maysles and I’ll forever be influenced by Grey Gardens. I find inspiration in a lot of things, like family dynamics, and society in the South. I’m just very interested in people’s stories. I think it’s really important to give voice to people from ostracized communities and people who would generally be disregarded, like Jeannette. Most people won’t even listen to what a prostitute has to say because of her profession.
Jeannette’s story was highly covered by the media, and most stories pitted Jeannette against her mother and daughter. After being dragged through the dirt on national television and in newspapers, how did Jeannette and her family react to your presence with a video camera?
When I met Jeannette, I was like “Great, she’s wonderful, she loves the camera, we get along really well.” But I also realized that she had certain stories that she told. I had watched all the news pieces about her, and I had seen her tell these stories to the media. I think at first, she thought that I was just going to be another in-and-out — get her story, and get out of there. After time, she got used to me and forgot about the camera. Most of the time we just drove around the city in her pick-up truck, checking out different locations while she told me stories.
You spent six years filming her, and she gave you access to some very intimate scenes. What were some of the more challenging things to film?
There is a scene where she finds her son doing heroin, and that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever filmed. It’s one of those situations where you think, “Oh my gosh, should I even be here? Should the camera be on?” But she made it very clear that she wasn’t trying to hide any part of her life. Later on, when I showed her the film before we premiered at South by Southwest, she said that was one scene she had difficulty with. She thought about asking me to take it out, but she realized that this is her life. This is really what happened, and she thought it was important for people to see the affect of everything on her life.
How did making the film affect you?
If anything, Jeannette has changed my life, just from being with her and listening to her telling her stories. There were definitely uncomfortable situations when I was filming, but I’m from the school of vérité. I believe that if I’m there filming, life is happening and I would love just to show it to people. This film was literally just me, with my camera.
You hoped that the film would encourage people to more openly talk about their feelings about prostitution and sexuality. What has the response to the film been like?
It’s pretty incredible. No matter how people feel about prostitution, they know that it’s important to talk about sexuality and get it out there. There is also the inequality of the law involved with Jeannette’s case. All these men and high-powered politicians got off without any sort of sentence, where she got probation and jail time. Essentially, the women were charged and the men were not. While I was filming, Jeannette became very political. She realized that this was a critical issue — the politicians making the laws against the sex industry were the same ones who were going to the brothels. She felt like she needed to speak up and talk about the hypocrisy.
What does it mean for you to screen the film at home for the first time?
I’ve lived in New York for 11 years and in Brooklyn for almost all of that time, so I’m really excited to be premiering here. It’s interesting, though, because New York doesn’t come off in the best light in the film.
Definitely not. Jeannette visits the Hard Rock Café in Times Square to be a guest on the Opie & Anthony radio show, and the crowd heckles her until a security guard has to escort her off stage.
When I told Jeannette we were having a screening in New York, she was like “Oh no, is it going to be that type of people again?” I assured her that the film festival crowd is different, but it should be interesting for her to come back to New York. Filming that scene was of the hardest things. That was absolutely horrifying.
Even though you’re originally from Virginia, do you consider yourself a Brooklynite?
Absolutely. A Southern Brooklynite… well, not South Brooklyn, but you know what I mean. I live in Williamsburg now, and I’ve lived all over the borough – Greenpoint, Bushwick, Prospect Heights, Park Slope. I always miss it when I leave. New Orleans has been a second home for a long time, but there’s this amazing restaurant in Williamsburg called Rye that has incredible oysters and amazing Sazeracs, which is this New Orleans drink that’s really hard to find in New York. It’s definitely my favorite place.
The New York premiere of The Canal Street Madam is this Friday, June 18 at BAM. The 90-minute film starts at 6:50pm, and a Q&A with Cameron Yates and Jeannette Maier will follow.