DOC NYC 2023 Review: NEIRUD, Family Secrets Revealed
Fernanda Faya's documentary examines the surprising life of her beloved aunt, known to wrestling fans as the kimono-wearing, invincible Gorilla Woman.
Brazilian filmmaker Fernanda Faya's Neirud is an intimate and affecting documentary that tells a larger-than-life story of a woman whom Faya thought she knew.
Using a wealth of home videos, photos and historical news reels, Faya sets out to solve the mystery like a good detective and constructs a beautiful portrait of her family friend, aunt Neirud, who happened to be a trailblazer in a country where things were still very much steeped in traditional ways.
With the Roma heritage on her father's side of the family, the filmmaker’s family has a long history in the circus business. And her ancestral history is a fascinating one: they fled the persecution during the war in Europe to Brazil, moving place to place to avoid prejudice and racism.
Faya's grandmother, Nely, a trailblazer in her own right, became the first in the family to be educated, and became a well-known actress in a traveling theater group. After a stint in Europe, Nely came back to her roots and start managing the circus theater group as an artistic director. That's where she met Neirud.
Aunt Neirud is seen in many home movies shot by Edgard, the filmmaker's father, gleefully holding the baby Faya on many occasions, with Grandma Nely in the background. They are joyful family occasions.
Donning a full afro, Neirud, a towering Black woman, was a gentle giant. Her life story, told by herself in an inquisitive interview conducted by Faya, which was filmed when Neirud was nearing the end of her life, is as dramatic as any great fiction.
After being abandoned by her biological mother in a small village to be cared for in a better-to-do household, as was common practice back in the day, young Neirud, being Black, was put to work while attending school, not like other white children. At the age of 8, she was already very tall and strong.
She ran away to the city and asked to be hired as a nanny. At 12, when the circus was in town, enamored by the spectacle, she ran away again to join the circus. Strong as she was, she quickly established herself as a pivotal member of the troupe, then a main attraction.
Legend has it that Neirud was the only one who could wield two hammers, one on each hand, to put the spikes in place to pitch the circus tent. Female wrestling, forbidden by law in a conservative society, was allowed only as a circus act. Developed by Nely, the female performers took on their own special characters -- a pretty one, a vampire, and so forth. In the ring, Neirud was the kimono-wearing and invincible Gorilla Woman, 200 pounds of pure muscle.
Faya, finding a wealth of pictures and footage of Grandma Nely -- as she was the matriarch of the family and the face of the family business -- but none of aunt Neirud from the wrestling days, sets out on an investigation into her family history. She tracks down the only living remaining wrestler, Rita, from back in the day.
In a series of phone interviews, Rita reveals that most of the photos were lost in the flood. She sends her a poster featuring "the Gorilla Woman" from that period. It's a towering picture of Neirud staring down.
Neirud never wrestled again after Nely's passing. She retired from the business and lived in the house by the beach that she had shared with Nely. Rita also reveals an important clue to Nely and Neirud's relationship. From all the materials she gathered, to her surprise, Faya finds a fantastic love story between the two women, whom she dearly loved. We also learns how they fled together on a road trip all over South America and ultimately formed their own circus troupe.
Neirud is not only a great love story, but an acute survey of Brazilian history and progress made in women's place in society. Aunt Neirud along with Grandma Nely turn out to have been trailblazers in more ways than one.
Switching gracefully between an intimate home movie and a historical documentary, the film is also a wistful love letter to a person who meant a lot to the filmmaker. Gently bookending with the reenactments of her childhood memories of aunt Neirud driving with big colorful inflatable balls strapped on the roof of her station wagon on the beach, Faya possesses a kin eye for visual lyricism that conveys yearning and sweet sorrow.
Along with Kleber Mendonça Filho's Pictures of Ghosts, Neirud chronicles changing Brazilian society through the bounds of first-person home movie narrative. Neirud works as a playful cinematic investigation with great warmth and heart.
Neirud plays as part of DOC NYC. It enjoys its International Premiere on Saturday, November 11, at Village East by Angelika, NYC. Visit the official site for more information.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com
- Fernanda Faya
- Fernanda Faya