Queen Mimi Director Yaniv Rokah Explains Why Mimi Haist Is The Queen of Montana Avenue

Rokah’s film documents Haist’s unprecedented life

For the past 25 years, Marie “Mimi” Haist has made Santa Monica’s Fox Laundromat her home. She wakes up every morning and dresses in pink, dances with her younger colleagues, and meticulously folds clothes to earn her keep.

Known by locals as the Queen of Montana, Haist was discovered years ago by first-time filmmaker Yaniv Rokah. Enchanted by the 89-year-old, Rokah decided to document her life. The result, Queen Mimi, details Haist’s home at the laundromat, her friendships with everyone from her regular customers to Zach Galifianakis and Renee Zellweger, and her unbreakable spirit. But it also delves deep into Haist’s past, what landed her on the streets in the first place, and the choices she’s made in her life to stay afloat despite unprecedented odds.

Here, Rokah talks about the film, and his journey with Mimi.

How did you get the idea for the film?
It kind of came to me. I was not a filmmaker, I just came to Los Angeles, like everyone else, trying to be famous. I was an actor. It kind of evolved, that’s why it took so many years to make it. At first it was my curiosity to, who is this magic person? Because I’m not used to knowing people that were her age. So here is this 80-year-old, full of character, loves to sing and dance and tell sex jokes, and so I think I wanted to capture that moment.

It’s so funny, I was driving here and called Mimi, she was at the hospital. And I said, “Mimi, I have an interview with L.A. Magazine, what should I tell them?” She said, “Tell them I am Queen Mimi.”

Any time you do a documentary, you’re confronting something very unflinchingly. Here, you’re confronting a lot of things: homelessness, getting older, and losing your family, in a sense. What was that like?
It was really intense. I went through those emotions, and all of those interviews that I’ve had with her, and the discoveries. And here I am, the filmmaker, trying to get the shot, the audio, trying to engage—it blew my mind, you know? At times I was upset, but I can’t get upset. She is my friend. And I was always walking that thin line of, where is it going too far, or not going far enough?

She inspired me, I think. Hers is the most extreme journey anyone could ever go through in life, and then you choose what you’re going to do with yourself and your life. So to see her being able to survive everything and just focus on, where is the next party? That’s an inspiration.

That’s an incredible thing to be part of.
I think a lot of people feel the same when they are with her. Her thing is, there is nothing but the present moment. Her famous line, “Yesterday’s gone—leave it there.” And she really lives by it. It’s almost like a pilgrimage to go to the laundromat, sit on the bench and have that time to stand still and have that magical world with Mimi, with Cinderella, with the queen of Montana.

There are intersections of so many different ideas in her story; fame and fortune, then the opposite of fame and fortune, and she’s living both at the same time.
And where you’re from, and what that means to you. Mimi is from Romania; it’s like, gypsy central. And yet she’s so against…she doesn’t see herself as homeless. Deep in her heart she is a gypsy, I think. So I have to give my editor the credit, Allie Garret. I always thought this was going to be a movie about homelessness, but it’s not. It’s about Mimi, who happens to be homeless, who happens to be friends with so-and-so, who happens to have had a completely normal life.

You say that you don’t want to act anymore. Did your career goals change over the course of the five years of making this movie?
Yeah, I say I grew up. I finally grew up. I don’t need to be a famous actor. I still love the craft of acting, but I feel like now, I have a job, and my job is to tell people’s stories.

Do you credit Mimi for that?
I credit Mimi for everything. I feel like I used to go so easily to sad village. Like, it’s so easy to get sucked into, “Oh, it’s so hard, my life sucks, I’m not really where I should be and I’m this and I’m that.” So in a way, it’s like the best therapy I’ve ever had and best career coach, not by choice just by the evolution of things.

She is a true friend. Even now she is one of my dearest friends in L.A.

Friendship is an interesting theme in the movie as well. You talk about celebrities like Zach Galifianakis and Renee Zellweger, and I think there’s a tendency to think she is a character in their lives more than a friend.
It’s very legitimate, because a lot of people see it in a negative light. Which I get; it looks like the perfect marketing in Hollywood. Here he is, he saved a homeless lady, let’s run with it! But it is so not. From my humble surprise, it is so not. Zach, for instance, also had a very strong friendship with Mimi for over 20 years. So it’s not coming out of left field. She used to house-sit for him. Of course the yellow magazines, the tabloids, fast forward 20 years: OK, a celebrity saves a homeless person! Good job, mensch! But it’s so not that.

Even in my interview with Zach, he specifically asked me not to mention the fact that he got her an apartment. He wanted to keep it at their friendship.

Was there ever a point during filming where Mimi’s story caused you to confront some of your own fears?
I was afraid that life is not what I thought it was I think. I almost didn’t want to go there. Yeah, you’re right—I was very hesitant, I was very nervous and shaken up by her story. You know, could this happen, really? I guess it can. And it’s OK. The fact that you can start over and build and build and sometimes even be better off.

Another Mimi-ism is, “When life deals you lemons, make lemon drop martinis.” So there you go.