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SXSW ’10 | Sex, Celebrity & Corruption: Cameron Yates Talks “Canal St. Madam”

SXSW '10 | Sex, Celebrity & Corruption: Cameron Yates Talks "Canal St. Madam"

Documentary Filmmaker Cameron Yates presents his first documentary feature “The Canal St. Madam” about New Orleans Madam Jeanette Maier, who ran a successful brothel until an FBI bust upended her life. “Her discreet clientele included a number of powerful, high-ranking politicians. The ensuing very public trial – both in the courtroom and in the media – focused salaciously on the fact that Jeanette’s brothel was a family affair – Jeanette ran the business with her mother and she employed her own daughter as an escort. Jeanette and her family ended up infamous, their futures blighted by felony convictions, yet their well-connected clients escaped exposure. Now, the Canal Street Madam sets out to reinvent herself, to reclaim her public persona, and to protect her family as she fights back against a system that silences the powerless and protects the elite.” [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]

The Canal Street Madam
Documentary Feature
Director: Cameron Yates
Producers: Mridu Chandra, Esther Robinson, Basil Tsiokos
Music: T. Griffin
Cinematography: Cameron Yates
Editors: Sakae Ishikawa, Shannon Kennedy, Mary Manhardt
89 minutes

Yates introduces himself and his work…

One of the first times I picked up a camera was in high school, when I traveled to rural Pennsylvania to document pilgrims at a church where the priest had seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary. And I haven’t put it down since. In 2002, I shot and directed a short doc called “14 and Payrolled” which follows the lives of teenagers who work as Pages for the Virginia House of Delegates, as they work from 9-5, live in a hotel, date one another, and experience independence for the first time in their lives. I’ve been filming in New Orleans for the past 6 years, and the result is “The Canal Street Madam” my first feature-length documentary. As well as a filmmaker, I’m also the documentary programmer at NewFest: The NY LGBT Film Festival.

I was in New Orleans in the summer of 2003, and I read a story in the newspaper about local madam Jeanette Maier who had been busted for running a brothel with her mother and daughter. I was fascinated by the idea of three generations of women working not only in the sex industry, but also in one house. So I called Jeanette while she was serving time, and we spoke on the phone for hours. We talked about corruption in New Orleans, about why women get busted for prostitution but men walk free, and she told me about all the powerful clients who disappeared when she was arrested. That’s how it all started.

I started filming Jeanette after she was just released from her halfway house and emerging into the world as a local celebrity, dubbed The Canal Street Madam. I was very interested in how she was thinking about marketing herself and searching for work outside the sex industry. What’s next for a notorious madam with a felony conviction? I also wanted to look at how the bust had affected her family.

I felt like it was essential to film Jeanette on my own without the formality of a crew, and I tried very hard to make the camera feel like an extension of myself and not a threatening recording device (keep in mind her phone had been tapped by the FBI for months before she was busted). If I was there, so was the camera. We spent a lot of time riding around in Jeanette’s truck and exploring New Orleans together. The result, I hope, is Jeanette and her family’s story on their own terms, not reduced to sound bites as in the media.

A huge challenge in making documentaries is open access to subjects – I was fortunate because Jeanette and I hit it off right away, and let me have access to her and everyone in her life, which was essential in capturing her story on camera. In addition, funding was a challenge. As you can imagine, finding funding for a film about prostitution was extremely difficult; everyone was intrigued by the subject, but scared to touch it.

Yates on why SXSW audiences will be intrigued to see it…

It’s about a former madam who decides to take on the hypocritical politicians who frequented her brothel. Sex, celebrity, and corruption in the South!

And on the films that have inspired him and the public’s perception of sex workers…

The film that has inspired me the most in life and art is “Grey Gardens.” The Maysles’ style of shooting and ability to gain intimacy with their subjects without interfering in their lives is a constant inspiration. But the two docs that influenced me while making this film were “Bus 174” and “Stevie.” Both films humanize outcasts in society who are often ignored and maligned by the general public and the media. Similarly, I felt that it was important to show not only the media’s obsession with Jeanette’s profession, but also how the general public looks at sex workers and felons, through the story of one woman who chose to work in the sex industry for over 25 years.

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