SXSW Review: The Canal Street Madam

By  · Published on March 28th, 2010

Some documentaries serve as a thesis, arguing for or against a given perspective. Others are critical or historical inquiries into a given incident or situation. Still others are character pieces detailing a portrait of a unique human being. It’s rare that one finds a documentary that serves all three functions, and does it well. But that’s exactly what The Canal Street Madam is: one-part character study, one part argumentative thesis and one part historical inquiry. Fortunately for us, all its parts are compelling.

The Canal Street Madam details the history of the Canal Street Brothel in New Orleans and its notorious closing and uncovering by the FBI and the subsequent arrest of its head madam, Jeanette Maier. First-time feature documentarian Cameron Yates said after the screening that the reason he chose to focus this subject in particular is that he felt the national media gave everyone a voice except for the Canal Street Madam herself, immediately written off as a criminal on account that she owned a brothel. Yates’ doc serves initially as a corrective for Maier’s lack of a voice within the mainstream media, and what a voice she possesses. It is in this respect that The Canal Street Madam serves its triple-function: the film focuses on her as a human being after the incident – so the incident isn’t always the central focus, but its retrospective function frames her character and opinions as documented – and from this character portrait the film tackles an array of issues, from body politics and the rights of discerning, autonomous, consensual adults to political corruption and hypocrisy in the city of New Orleans.

The initial joy of the film is watching Maier in action. She’s outspoken, opinionated, hilarious, and strong. We see her in moments of weakness and vulnerability, in moments of shame, and in moments of confident, self-manifested strength. The camera never shies away from her and we never shy away from it, and The Canal Street Madam is continuously enriching through this comprehensive point-of-access.

But the people she surrounds herself with are as fascinating as she is, which serves to greater inform her character, life decisions, and opinions. As Maier is exposed, so are her family and friends. We see to see her interact with, and witness the vastly different relationships she has between, her two sons and one daughter. Maier’s mother and best friend are equally compelling and entertaining, the narrative providing entities in front of the camera – regardless of any of the other functions of the doc – that are just as intriguing as its central subject. (The best friend, who sometimes serves as the comic relief, provides the film’s greatest lines of dialogue, like when she refers to the controversy over the Canal Street Madam proudly calling herself a whore as, “maybe it’s one of those words that you can only say if you are one.” There’s a reason real people like this are such a treat to watch in documentaries, you get a sense that stuff this real can never be written convincingly in fiction filmmaking.)

The second great surprise of the film is how far out of its initial scope the film ventures. It’s hardly just about Maier or the closing of her brothel. The film explores – through confessionals and home videos – a dense personal history of the Madam, details the political corruption and hypocrisy of elected officials who frequented her brothel, shows her response and relief efforts after Katrina, addresses the ugly fates of other big-city madams who threatened to release the names of their clientele, and follows her difficult uphill battle to reinvent herself and pursue socially acceptable work while possessing a criminal record. It’s remarkable that so many subjects are explored within the same feature length non-fiction film without ever feeling bloated or unfocused. It’s a credit to the filmmakers that The Canal Street Madam is able to balance all these things while keeping an entertaining, natural flow.

The Canal Street Madam never mocks its subject; it gives a person a platform that people occupying such pockets of society are rarely afforded. While there is no voice-over narration or overtly subjective or discriminatory framing of the film’s subject, one does get the sense that Maier’s stance on body politics and the rights of adults does mirror that of the filmmaker’s, and serves as a major reason that this film was made in the first place. I’m thankful for it, as The Canal Street Madam as a case study makes quite the convincing and common sense demonstration for the political perspectives within, all while keeping in line as documentation of a subject and a character, thus avoiding the trappings of didacticism. The Canal Street Madam accomplishes several impressive feats when most docs can hardly accomplish one. It is, in so many ways, a complete work of non-fiction.

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