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'Tangerine' intimately portrays life for transgender women of color

Sean S. Baker’s film "Tangerine" made its world premiere to audiences in January at Sundance Film Festival. And now the buzzed about indie flick hits Philly.

Sean S. Baker's film Tangerine made its world premiere to audiences in January at Sundance. The film finally opens in Philadelphia on Friday, July 24 at the Ritz at the Bourse for a short week.

Shot entirely on an iPhone 5s, Tangerine tells the story of best friends Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), two transgender women of color living in Los Angeles.

The film begins on a hazy Christmas Eve morning at Doughnut Time, a doughnut shop home to pimps and prostitutes. Rella discovers her boyfriend has been cheating on her while she was in prison. After finding out this shocking news, we follow the women as they traipse around Hollywood Boulevard looking for answers and looking for work. The film also follows an Armenian cab driver who is hiding a secret.

Tangerine has been applauded by critics, including Variety who said the film is, "an exuberantly raw and up-close portrait of one of Los Angeles' more distinctive sex-trade subcultures."

I myself was a little let down.

With a lot of heart, the film is shot so intimately that the poor acting of the main actors is apparent. However, Mya Taylor is a standout whose successful portrayal of level-minded Alexandra has a lot of benevolence. Her performance alone is worth the admission.

I had the opportunity to ask Baker, Tangerine's director and co-writer six questions, including his biggest challenge, how he failed, and what he loves about Philly.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when filming this?

Making sure that we were finding the right balance between drama and comedy. Early on in the process, Mya Taylor (Alexandra) told me that she would make the film with me if I promised two things 1) She wanted me to capture the brutal reality that transgender sex workers have to live. No holding back. Even if it was difficult to watch or not politically correct. 2) She wanted the film to be hilarious. She wanted the film to capture the humor that the girls use to cope.  -- I was taken aback because what I was being asked to do was attempt a very tricky balancing act that could go quite wrong.

Tell me about a failure of yours during filming and what you learned from it.

No shot or scene is perfect so every shot and scene is ultimately a failure. That's the sad part about film making. A director wants perfection and perfection is impossible.

Why was this story important for you to tell?

This is the first time that a film has two lead characters who are transgender women of color. Roles for transgender women of color are usually minor roles if they exist at all. We are presenting a story about two transgender women of color in Los Angeles and presenting it in a pop fashion focusing on humor. The intention is to connect with mainstream audiences and hopefully the take way is that these audiences are interested enough to do homework on the subject. This leads to awareness which will hopefully lead to acceptance.

How was the Armenian story line developed and who are the characters based on?

Karren Karagulian is a wonderful, under-appreciated actor with whom I've worked with five times now. He is Armenian-American. When I was developing this script, I told Karren that I wanted to involve him in the film however the focus of the film was two characters set in the world of trans gender sex in Los Angeles. I always want to find a role for him in all of my films but I told him that I didn't know how to include him. He quickly replied ... 'There is a huge Armenian population in Los Angeles plus every other cab driver is Armenian-American so I think you have your answer.' So we developed the parallel b-story for Karren playing the role of Razmik, a family man who has a preference that he must suppress because of societal norms. The entire Armenian cast are superstars in Armenia. Alla Tumunyan, Luiza Nersisyan and Arsen Gregorian are very seasoned actors and celebrities from Yerevan. I am honored to have worked with them.

The storyline was written by Chris Bergoch (co-screenwriter) and I. We consulted with the Armenian cast on the nuances in the dialogue and then the dialogue was translated from English to Armenian. I was actually a cab driver in the early 90's so some of the details including some of the passengers were based on my experience.

Have you ever been to Philly?

I've visited Philly a few times. It's a wonderful city. I visited to see the Love Letter Murals. What a wonderful idea that more cities should adopt.

What is next for you?

Another film in the same wheelhouse of social-realism, this time focusing on children living in Florida.

Running time: 87 minutes
Rated: R