Queen of Lapa is an all access documentary on a trans sex worker community in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It is one of those rare, clear-eyed intimate filmmaking endeavors and experiences that needs to be seen, recognized and celebrated. Directed by a husband and wife team- Theodore Collatos (Tormenting the Hen) and Carolina Monnerat, the film observes a long time trans-activist and famous local underground figure, Luana Muniz in the bustling Lapa neighborhood in Rio. She is a proprietor of Luana's House, a former restaurant/hotel converted into a hostel for young trans-people engaging in prostitution. The girls bring their johns there. Luana's not their pimp but their landlord. Because it's a dangerous profession, the house provides a safe environment and sense of community for these individuals.
Aging yet still powerful and dominant, Muniz plays a mother figure to the young ones, giving them advice and life lessons. "Never be dependent on anybody," she says, "only depend on yourself." She demonstrates how to get out of a choke hold. She also constantly yells at them for not cleaning up after themselves. She recounts dark days where transvestites were relentlessly abused and discriminated against. Luana had to be tough.
In the house, we meet Gabi, Emilly, Mariana, Yara, Lorna and more living and working there. They watch a TV segment on fearless Luana chasing and beating up an abusive man. They cheer at the screen. In their rooms, they candidly talk about their lives and aspirations. Some dream about going to Europe. Some talk about going back home (most girls are from the countryside). Some talk about falling in love. They are as normal as anyone, until they get competitive and catty talking about their breast implants and size of their butts or pros and cons of having male genitalia.
Collatos and Monnerat's non-judgmental, fly-on-the-wall approach captures some remarkably intimate moments of their subjects' lives. There is barely any interjections. The filmmakers let their stories come out naturally, as they listen behind the camera. The film takes no time to become intimate and familiar, it almost makes you forget about the dangerous nature of their job. Things obviously have changed since Luana first started working the street corners at age 11. Now instead of standing in the corners, it's done through Whatsapp. Gabi, a pretty blonde who resembles Scarlett Johansson and tends to livestream her daily life on Facebook, shows her busted lip from an assault that had taken place the other day for everyone to see.
Luana often talks about her legacy - the place she's built for these young trans sex workers. Queen of Lapa is not a documentary on something exotic - as Luana says, "I'm not exotic. I'm not some animal." It doesn't highlight the differences of its subjects from the audience, but rather acknowledges and celebrates what we have in common: our humanity. Luana Muniz passed away in 2017. As the film draws to an end without an epilogue, it leaves you wondering the fate of Luana's House and her surrogate children.
Queen of Lapa has its world premiere at Maryland Film Festival. It plays on 5/10 at the BBox MICA and 5/11 at The Parkway in Baltimore, Maryland. Click here for more info.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com