When Yaniv Rokah, director of Queen Mimi, met Mimi Haist he knew there was something special about the older woman. Mimi, who had been living in a laundromat on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica and had been homeless for decades, was lively and gregarious despite her circumstances. Her magnetic personality led to the adoration of those in the neighborhood, including celebrity residents like Zach Galifianakis and Renée Zellweger. Galifianakis subsequently invited Mimi to various movie premieres and the two supported Mimi via getting her an apartment with all the furnishings. Aside from Mimi’s natural charm, few of her friends in the community knew of her past and what led to her homelessness. What started out as simple recordings of Mimi on Rokah’s phone took a turn when the director dug deeper in an effort to uncover more about her life, getting as close to understanding Mimi’s past as anyone will.
We spoke with Rokah and Mimi about their friendship, Mimi’s magnetism, and her philosophy on the past.
What were the initial impressions you two had of each other?
Yaniv Rokah: It was love at first sight. I was working at a cafe across the street from the laundromat, that’s how I got to know Mimi. Mimi really stood out in the crowd. We were a very popular spot in Santa Monica, people would stand in line for an hour. And here is Mimi, a ball of fire, a fresh breath of air. So it immediately attracted me to her, I wanted to know everything about her. I wanted to be her friend. How was it for you Mimi?
Mimi Haist: Oh yeah, he’s so good looking that I could crawl all over him. [Laughs.]
And Yaniv, at what point in knowing Mimi did you decide you wanted to make a documentary about her?
Rokah: I started filming on my iPhone really not knowing that I was making a film. I just wanted to capture the Mimi magic. Who is this lady? I want to have that in my pocket forever. So I asked her if I could take some video of her. We became friends so I tried to help her out, I would take her to a hairdresser or go eat out and I would go on my phone and ask her some questions. That’s how it started. And then she would introduce me to people as her photographer. And the more I knew about her I figured, maybe I could tell a short film about her life. Here’s a practically a homeless person who lives in a laundromat that is more resilient than every other person I know. That’s how it started then it grew and it grew and it grew and then I realized, okay, I need to start calling for favors because I wasn’t a filmmaker. I started calling my friends Andrew [Fox] and Elliot [Kotek] to help out and friends brought their cameras. They knew how to make films so that’s how it shaped up. Then we ended up with 60 hours of footage and at some point we said okay, we need to make a film now. So we did a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds and got our amazing editor Ally Garrett. That’s how it all came together.
And Mimi, were you ambivalent at any point about there being a documentary about you?
Haist: I didn’t mind. I had seen other people in films.
Rokah: Did you realize what was happening?
Haist: Not really.
Rokah: She was totally game for the ride and I could tell that after a while, when I started showing her the footage, then she realized, okay, everything that I say is being documented. I better watch what I say. It was a really interesting process. I think at first she was very free and being herself, then, once she realized, okay, everything I say is being documented, she started to be a little more cautious about what she was saying.
Did you find that Mimi eventually let her guard down again when it came to the point where you were asking more about her past and her daughters?
Rokah: Yeah, well, Mimi’s philosophy is yesterday’s gone, leave it there. Let’s not talk about the past. But for a filmmaker to make a film about someone, you need to know everything. So I think she was definitely guarded when I wanted to find out about her past. Everyone knows her in town but no one really knew her full story. So I wanted to dig deep and find out. How can you end up at a laundromat, how could she be all by herself in the world? So that’s why I took so long. It took time for our relationship to build and for her to trust me and then when I found out about the daughter, five years into making this film, I was quite shocked. I had known her for all this time and she had never mentioned anything about her daughter.
Mimi, are you happy that you eventually opened up a bit more about your past?
Haist: Yes, I’m very pleased. One of the reasons that I did not talk about my daughter is because of her husband.
Rokah: Yeah, she was afraid.
Haist: My daughter was married and her husband was not a nice person.
Rokah: She was protecting her daughter.
What’s been the end result for both of you? Mimi, how is it now that even more people know about you and in a more intimate way?
Haist: Well I like people. It’s easy for me to talk to them. And I teach people how to wash their clothes. [Laughs.] So I do keep busy, and that’s good for me.
Rokah: And you also teach them how to be happy.
Haist: Yeah, I did. I try to be happy everyday.
Rokah: She inspires many people. And I think, for me, definitely by telling her story I wanted to tell the message of, just be here and now. Be happy, forget what happened. Focus on looking up versus dwelling on negativity and what’s not right. If Mimi can do it we can all do the same, at least. So she definitely transformed me. And it’s an interesting projection too. Here I am across the street and she’s at the laundry on her bench, we’re both wanting to be discovered or saved. I looked up to her a lot of the time. I wanted to be like her, I wanted to be as strong and resilient. And I think that’s what I got out of it and I needed to tell it to everyone. Spread the message.
So many people are drawn to Mimi and they want her company and friendship. Mimi, what would you say it is about yourself that draws people to you?
Haist: I think it’s because I’m always in a happy mood. I’m not depressed. Never. I think it’s because I’m happy and I talk to people and I’m very friendly. I think that’s part of it.
Rokah: She’s very sexy too.
Haist: At 90 I am kind of sexy. [Laughs.]
Rokah: She’s funny, she’s inspiring, she’s a ball of fire. Who doesn’t want to be around that? Everywhere we go it’s like, “Hi Mimi!” “Hey Mimi!” We go to a bar together or a restaurant, people pick up the tab. It’s amazing. People give her gifts all day. People want to relate, they want to be like Mimi. So they look up to her and if she can be that happy with so little, we could be too. And it’s amazing to see how anywhere, everywhere I take the film around the world, everyone was relating to her, from young to adult, on so many levels. She’s such a young spirit and yet she’s 90. She covers so many…
Haist: Phases of life.
Rokah: Phases of life, thank you Mimi. We complete each other’s sentences. That’s a true friendship.
And looking at the bigger picture, what do you hope people take away from the film?
Haist: To be happy and to always look up. Not down.
Rokah: And, to me, don’t judge. I was judgmental before and I think I’m a lot less judgmental now. You never know and everyone has a story. Even the homeless person next door to you could open your heart. Ask the questions, communicate, it’s about communication with other people to see how we can help them. They all had normal lives before and they all had families and jobs and then something went wrong. If we pay attention, I think that’s half the solution.
There’s a point in the film where you say you’ll never fully understand how Mimi became homeless. What do you make of not having all the questions answered in the film?
Rokah: I personally like that because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. People make choices. Sometimes they’re the right choices and sometimes they’re the wrong choices that lead you to be homeless. It’s not about that. It’s not about the choices, it’s not about what happened, it’s about what you do with it. That’s why I included that because, frankly, she has a falling out with her daughter, that happens in some families. For whatever the reasons are, it’s not important. It happened. The question is, what do you do with it? And it all came around and Mimi reconnected with her daughter, which I do take a bit of credit for and I’m very happy about that. And that’s what’s important at the end of the day.
Mimi, I know you don’t like reflecting too much on the past, but was there a moment throughout the process of making the documentary that you felt okay or even happy about opening up about your past?
Haist: Oh yeah. I knew he was doing whatever he did of what I did. So I’ve been happy about that.
Rokah: When did you start trusting me?
Haist: Not too long after I met you.
Rokah: I think a lot of it is trust. It took time for her to open up. She lived at the laundromat before I met her for maybe 16 or so years and not a lot of people knew about her private life. And I think, for me, with my background, maybe it’s my heritage, I felt like I needed to know the why and the how. I was persistent, I never gave up. I could have given up many times but I wanted to get to the bottom of it. It took a long time, believe me. A lot of it was on the surface for a long time. I was patient, I was at the coffee shop anyway, I was her friend. I wasn’t rushing to make a film. I was there waiting for it to unfold and I’m glad that I was patient with it because it definitely paid off.
Haist: I’m very happy about it.
And was Zach Galifianakis always open to being interviewed for this as well?
Haist: He’s my friend.
Rokah: I reached out to Zach through the official channels with no luck. And then I gave up and asked Mimi to talk to Zach, if he’d be interested in being in the film. And then I got a call from him a couple weeks later telling me to come over for an interview. On the one hand he was very supportive and on the other very shy about the whole thing. He didn’t want that attention, he didn’t want to seem like he was helping someone for publicity. So even when we conducted the interviews he asked me if we could leave out the part that he got her an apartment. Even with that I was totally okay with everything, I was patient. One time he invited Mimi to a premiere of his movie and then she asked me if I would be her date and I agreed and I snuck my phone and took some video a little bit. It was a natural process of more and more and more and more. I’m glad that both Renée and Zach are very involved in Mimi’s life, they check in on her and send her gifts. It’s a real friendship.