Actors Renee Zellweger (top right) and Zach Galifianakis (bottom right) helped Marie Haist move from a laundromat to her own apartment. Actors Renee Zellweger (top right) and Zach Galifianakis (bottom right) helped Marie Haist move from a laundromat to her own apartment. Actors Renee Zellweger (top right) and Zach Galifianakis (bottom right) helped Marie Haist move from a laundromat to her own apartment. (Photo: Getty Images)

For Queen Mimi, even a Los Angeles laundromat can be a palace

Director of the critically acclaimed new movie, 'Queen Mimi,' tells the true story of a modern fairytale.

“Queen Mimi” is a modern urban fairytale about a pixie-like homeless octogenarian who lives in a laundromat. The documentary is from first-time director Yaniv Rokah, who finds himself unexpectedly starring in a real-life Cinderella story as he and the film rack up raves and film festival honors in advance of its April 22 release.

Like many actors who come to Los Angeles and wait tables and park cars to pay the bills while waiting for their big break, the Israel-born Rokah got a job as a barista at a popular Santa Monica coffee shop. It just happened to be across the street from the aforementioned laundromat. He got to know Mimi, a beloved neighborhood fixture (whose real name is Marie Haist), and became “fascinated by this woman who was funny and mysterious and positive and loves to dance and sing and tell jokes and wear pink. I didn’t start out to make a movie, but as I learned more about her I wanted to capture that,” he says.

“At first, I thought I was making a film about homelessness, but I realized this is a movie about Mimi, who happens to be homeless,” Rokah tells From The Grapevine. “I also realized you can never judge anyone. Everyone has a story if we just open our eyes and hearts and listen.”

Over the course of five years, Rokah uncovered unexpected things about Mimi’s past and her unlikely celebrity connections. As it turns out, actors Renee Zellweger and Zach Galifianakis are two of Mimi’s angels. After some chasing, Galifianakis agreed to be interviewed for the film – although he was reluctant to reveal the extent of his generosity, lest it be perceived as publicity-motivated.

The filmmaker called upon Hollywood connections to help him produce and edit the film – he had more than 60 hours of footage – and raised $75,000 via Kickstarter, largely thanks to the local community that knows Mimi. “The support from the community was unbelievable,” says Rokah, still amazed that an Israeli couple whom he told about the project handed him a check for $10,000, and a musician who attended a screening was moved to write, record and donate a song that now plays over the end credits.

Working at Caffe Luxxe had proved to be instrumental in building Rokah’s resumé. “I was there for a month and the wife of a big director asked me if I was an actor, asked for my headshot and two weeks later I’m in a national commercial for Visa,” he tells us. Similarly, he got the part of an Israeli in “World War Z” from a producer who was a customer at the coffee shop.

Mimi (left) takes a break from filming with director Yaniv Rokah.Mimi (left) takes a break from filming with director Yaniv Rokah. (Photo: Jennifer Renée)

Born in Netanya, Israel, and the youngest of 10 children, Rokah sought to follow his dream. “I sang in choirs and always had a fascination with the stage." So at 23, he moved to New York, where his brother was living. "I went to Lee Strasberg [acting school] for a couple of years and it was an amazing time in my life.” Hoping to make it in Hollywood, he moved west in 2006. He’s had roles in “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “Beast” and “Dig."

“There’s nothing like performing on stage or being in front of a camera. It’s an exhilarating experience,” he says. “Acting is my first love and directing is my new love, telling stories. Mimi taught me it’s not about being in front of the camera. It’s about telling important stories that inspire people.”

Now 40, the single filmmaker looks to Mimi, now 90, for inspiration. “She makes me look forward to aging. It’s about attitude and perspective, if you focus on being happy,” he says. “I never intended to make this film, but the story found me to tell the gospel of Mimi: be happy, have fun and respect other people. I’m very grateful to be on this journey with Mimi and everything that’s happened to me.”

Rokah no longer works at Caffe Luxxe. “I never officially quit or got fired. The door’s always open,” he says. “But hopefully, I’ll be focusing on my films.”

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