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From iPhone to iFilm: the queer experience of Tangerine

Set in what seems like an eternal dusk, Tangerine is breathtaking in its beauty and garishness. Images courtesy of MIFF

From iPhone to iFilm: the queer experience of Tangerine

Tangerine, a film by US director Sean Baker currently screening at Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), is a remarkable piece of cinema for a number of reasons.

It’s queer in both content and approach: not only does it feature queer actors (the film has garnered much critical acclaim for its use of trans actors in trans roles), it’s also queer in its irreverent approach to style, form and storytelling. Filmed on an iPhone 5S, Tangerine presents an alternative to the dominant Hollywood or even Indiewood model of filmmaking.

The film’s central protagonist is Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez ), a trans sex worker fresh out of jail, who finds out that her boyfriend/pimp has been cheating on her with a cisgender woman. Seething with rage, she seeks revenge.

Sin-Dee pounds the pavement throughout the film, looking for her boyfriend and his lover. Meanwhile, her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) tags along, using every conversation as an opportunity to advertise a gig for that evening.

As the women approach fellow sex workers, pimps and friends in the streets of Hollywood, Baker’s camera swoops in on them. At once intimate and distanced, these camera movements mirror the intensity of movement that underpins the film: a violent and volatile walking tour of the city, Los Angeles, in which no one walks.

Tangerine (2015), Sean Baker. Images courtesy of MIFF

In between, we cut to segments featuring Rasmik (an Armenian taxi driver with a hidden desire for trans women) and his family. Just over midway through the film, his mother-in-law condemns Los Angeles for its superficiality. Searching for the truth behind Rasmik’s erratic behaviour, she describes LA as “a beautifully wrapped lie”.

Baker juxtaposes (and ultimately joins) the two narrative threads, and in doing so cultivates a unique rhythm: the fast pace of the street is contrasted with the slow pace of the vehicle. This reminds us, as Alexandra proclaims early on in the film, that: “Out here it is all about our hustle. And that’s it.”

Tangerine (2015) trailer, Sean Baker.</movie.

Discussion of the film has focused on digital utopianism, or the idea that the digital era has democratised culture and that greater access means increased choices and content, as well as greater potential for community and participation. As Mark Duplass, one of Tangerine’s executive producers, said at South by Southwest (SXSW) earlier this year:

There’s no excuse for not making short films on the weekends with your friends, shot on your iPhone.

Tangerine (2015), Sean Baker. Images courtesy of MIFF

That said, describing Tangerine purely as an “iPhone film” seems false. To describe it in this way is to suggest that Baker picked up his phone one day and decided to get creative; it’s to say that Tangerine is in the same league as the low-grade videos and Vines that we watch on our phones when we’re bored.

But Tangerine wasn’t made to be viewed on a small handheld device. It was made to be viewed in a darkened auditorium, on a screen that towers over its audiences as they sit still, captivated by its imagery.

To make the film appear at home on this big screen, Baker cultivated its aesthetic. In addition to the iPhone 5S, he also used a prototype anamorphic lens which allowed it to be shot in a cinematic aspect ratio (2.35:1 to be precise), a US$7.99 video camera app for high-definition filming, a Steadicam rig to steady the images and allow smooth camera movements, and an array of sound recording equipment.

Baker also enhanced the images during post-production where he amped up the colours and applied a digital grain to provide a richer visual texture.

Tangerine (2015), Sean Baker. Images courtesy of MIFF

Evoked through all of this is not the feeling of authenticity that I expected to come from an iPhone film, but rather an aesthetic that complements the premise of LA’s inhabitants leading lives of beautiful lies. The iPhone camera is incredibly mobile and captures light in a sublime and unique manner.

The resulting film has a palpable kinetic energy that is accompanied by a hallucinatory, indeed tangerine, glow. Set in what seems like an eternal dusk, Tangerine is breathtaking in its beauty and garishness. It is both a camp fever dream of Hollywood’s seedy underbelly and a sincere rumination on friendship and love.


Tangerine screens on August 14 as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival. Details here.