Among the numerous documentaries about trans individuals being released this Gay Pride Month, many like “Jack & Yaya” and “For They Know Not What They Do” involve protagonists who are leading — or at least trying to lead — perfectly ordinary lives beyond the challenges that gender identity-related issues have thrown their way. The central figures in “Queen of Lapa,” however, would disdain an ordinary life even if it were on offer, which it probably isn’t.
Theodore Collatos and Carolina Monnerat’s feature about a Rio de Janeiro hostel for trans sex workers and its celebrity owner-founder recalls such trailblazing docs from a half-century ago as “Portrait of Jason” and “The Queen,” in that it, too, is about larger-than-life personalities who are outliers from the societal mainstream. Winner of the grand jury prize among non-fiction features at NewFest last year, this engaging vérité snapshot is headed to a virtual U.S. release in association with theaters and LGBTQ organizations on June 19, in lieu of the originally planned theatrical launch.
Opening text informs us that Luana Muniz, “a sex worker since the age of 11 turned nationally recognized activist,” has been running a live/work safe space for transgender prostitutes in Rio’s Lapa district for two decades. That’s about it for contextualizing — otherwise we’re plunged into the “Muniz Hotel’s” everyday life, starting with the lady herself fretting over a costly water bill. It’s a boisterous atmosphere with the residents forever prepping to go out, comparing bodies (and surgical procedures) or having semi-playful arguments, when not entertaining clients. Most seem to be transvestites rather than transsexuals, as much out of necessity as choice — it’s suggested that despite the group’s sexily feminine looks, what their often-married johns seek requires equipment the wives back home do not have.
Though Brazilian laws are relatively gay-friendly, it would appear acceptance is iffier when it comes to trans people. Many of the charges to whom “Mother Luana” dispenses life wisdom and scoldings have harrowing tales of abusive clients, violent muggings and so forth. While they still walk the streets for trade, her roof provides a considerable degree of protection — and she once shot a thief herself on the premises. We actually watch her pummeling a man too drunk to complete a transaction in 2010 Globo Television footage that showcased her as “leader of Lapa’s transvestites.” Her fame is such that several among the hostel’s younger present-day residents recall seeing her on TV when they were children.
“I’m such an actress,” Luana sighs early on, after admitting she’s opened a fan not because it’s hot but because “it’s charming.” She is a very theatrical personality duly seen performing onstage at a club, and who discloses little despite allowing, “I went through hell to be who I am today.” More often she is fanning her own mythos with statements like, “I’m the only star here. The others circle around me like a constellation.”
Getting as much footage is mercurial blonde bombshell Gabi, who seems like she’d take no guff from anyone, but admits she’s landed here because “if you’re murdered in Sao Paolo, nobody knows or cares.” A natural rule-breaker, she’s so addicted to social media, she gets banned from Facebook at one point for posting too much objectionable content (presumably images of clients).
The vigor of these colorful characters downplays their fragile sides — drug abuse is just fleetingly mentioned here — so it comes as a shock when “Queen of Lapa” ends with a prominent figure’s death notice, sans any explanation. Though the documentary gradually mutes its initial parade of competitive flamboyance to show mutual supportiveness within the “hotel,” there are limits to the insight its subjects will allow. One gets the sense they’ve hardened themselves against pain to survive for too long to let a camera get free access to their innermost thoughts.
While no one is rolling in money here, the ambiance is more lush than impoverished, with the warm colors of Collatos’ cinematography capturing a Rio that can still be inviting and jubilant even when rent is overdue. (Mother L. collects it daily.) One might wish for a little more backgrounding information to further illuminate the slice-of-life content here. Still, “Queen of Lapa’s” short runtime is long enough to communicate a sense of a unique place done justice in its simultaneously gaudy and poignant essence.