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Safe Space: An Interview with ‘Queen of Lapa’ Directors Theodore Collatos and Carolina Monnerat

Luana Muniz was a community leader in Lapa, a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro known for its booming nightlife. A trans sex worker and activist with years of experience, Muniz provided security, solidarity and support for peers in her trade. As the founder and president of the Association of Transgender Sex Professionals, she raised awareness and successfully lobbied for sex workers’ rights, leading the government to acknowledge their occupation. Dedicated, Muniz even established a hostel about 20 years ago for trans sex workers to live at affordable rates. 

Muniz’s building is the focus in Theodore “Teddy” Collatos and Carolina Monnerat’s Queen of Lapa (2019), an observational documentary almost exclusively set within the place. Deliberately foregoing historical and contextual grounding for Muniz in particular and Brazilian politics in general, Queen of Lapa drops viewers into her life and those around her. It’s a direct and intimate work, freely moving back and forth between the different tenants staying there. The documentary provides a glimpse of their lives in this communal space, as tenants like Gabi, Emilly, Mariana and Yara share their hopes, aspirations and way of life.

Filmed in 2016, Queen of Lapa takes place at a turning point in Brazil. That same year, President Dilma Rousseff was impeached in August. Muniz died the following year. The current president, Jair Bolsonaro, caters to his evangelical constituency, has taken action to repeal and halt LGBTQIA+ rights and openly spouts anti-gay rhetoric. In August, September and October of 2018, homophobic hate crimes increased 75 percent. Queen of Lapa takes place right before the country’s government turned markedly right wing.

I spoke with Collatos and Monnerat about their new documentary after it had premiered at the Maryland Film Festival and before its international debut at Sheffield Doc/Fest.

When did you meet Luana Muniz?

Theodore Collatos: Many years ago, around 2013-ish. We were visiting family and…

Carolina Monnerat: I’m from Rio de Janeiro, born and raised. My mom has an apartment in Gloria, near Lapa, where Luana’s hostel is. We go to Brazil often because the whole family is there. Teddy was doing photography in Rio during New Year’s Eve and carnival, both really big moments in the city…

TC: Year after year, I would do street photography. Just all over, trying to capture the slice-of-life moments. But what struck us was that sex workers would work on her mom’s block. It was interesting because of their integration into the community. 

CM: It was something that I grew up with; it was so secondary to my mind that I thought, “why would anyone pay attention to them?”

TC: Her family didn’t even notice them! 

CM: As a kid, while going home from school as a six-year-old at 6:00 PM, they’d already be out on the streets. They’re part of your day-to-day life. So, Teddy saw little kids coming back home from school, and then you had these wonderful, beautiful women dressed in scandalous clothing — no one was paying attention to them. Some people were though. There was actually a huge backlash from the neighborhood association to kick them out of the area…

TC: Not in our era though.

CM: When I was a kid, my father was involved with the neighborhood association. He was one of the people that pushed forward to allow them to stay where they were, showing the neighborhood that they weren’t causing any harm, that it was okay, and let people be who they are. So, when Teddy was there, he said he needed to photograph this. It was amazing. I shared with him that, you know, you can’t just go up to any sex worker and say, “Let me take your photo.” 

TC: Yeah, we would never do that. It just seemed odd not to include it because it’s part of the street life.

CM: We started to look into who owns the block. After two months of doing research, and because I was always in the dance and ballet world, I knew people with degrees of separation from the sex industry. Also, going to a lot of talks, even fashion shows that were centered around the LGBTQIA+ community in Rio, we figured out Luana was the person who owned the block, but she was a special person. She was completely different than what you would imagine someone who owns the block to be. She had a big social impact and agenda… because of her, prostitution is an occupation that’s recognized in Brazil.

TC: She lobbied the government…

CM: She was an activist, and we were so inspired by her that we finally got her information. As you can imagine, everyone from Vice to BBC has tried to do something with her, but she’s really vigilant against exploitation and protecting her girls. 

TC: We got in touch with her because a fashion designer told us about her and the storefront that she runs; Luana provides fashion and clothing for the trans community. 

CM: It was a little disheartening because Luana had no interest in talking to us. We thought, let’s just go in front of her building…

TC: We just wanted to get coffee, simply as an amazing person to chat with. So, we got her address and went there. Of course, she didn’t want to see us, but we left a book of my photography and Carolina wrote a nice note…

CM: About why we wanted to do a photographic work with her and the girls, why would that matter to us, and my history with the neighborhood. We basically begged the doorman to leave it in front of her door and walked back to my mom’s house. When we got there, the phone rang, and it was Luana. I answered the phone, and she was like [She lowers her voice, making it gravely], “It’s Luana, I want to meet you. Come back.” We rushed to her place, and the moment she opened the door, it was just like how you saw it in the movie, she had a towel that slipped down. She was topless, invited us in, and we watched her shows and performances for hours. We really bonded at that moment. It was clear that this was beyond photographic work. This was a documentary. 

TC: Her passion was being an artist. She saw us as that too; she loved the photography. The pictures and the note did it for her. She was intrigued by us as much as we were by her. It was collaborative in that way, too. It wasn’t like we were wanting to do this. We didn’t even know. 

It just happened organically.

TC: Yeah, the moment you meet her…

CM: It’s like, who are you? I want to be your best friend forever. 

So, the timeline for the documentary is from 2013 to…

TC: We went back to the States and tried to get some grants. She thought that was great and wanted to continue our conversation. That’s what we did for many years. We didn’t get anything though. 

CM: We applied to many, we got none. 

TC: We were finalists for the Creative Capital Award twice… Carolina had a position at her job that brought her back to Brazil for the Olympics [in 2016]. I thought this was an opportunity. We found a producer who was intrigued by the story and gave us a tiny bit of money just to get me there. I went around to my people, borrowed a camera, sound equipment, and we took all of this stuff to Rio, not knowing if it was even going to happen or not.

CM: I started talking to Luana again; we kept in touch a little bit throughout the years — liking things and writing comments on Facebook. We met with her, and she was totally down to make it happen — just for one day though. Okay, we’ll do it for one day, which is impossible…

TC: Her attitude was: why would you want to film us? We were hanging out, and we liked each other, but she wanted to know what was interesting about this? She was weary… 

CM: There have been other films done around her that she allowed to happen.

TC: Not too many, nothing like ours.

CM: No. What she’s used to is more, if you’re going to do an interview, sit down in front of the bright lights. Or, it’s completely exploitative, which she has been quite a bit. 

TC: Or she’s like a prop. She’s this exotic person in a movie that’s not about her life, just her in the background of a scene. 

CM: Trying to explain cinéma vérité was a little challenging. But the way that she made sense of it with the girls was by telling them that it was like Big Brother, because that’s a big show in Rio. “They’re not going to ask us questions, they’re just going to be a fly on the wall.” But for her, shooting started as just one day. Okay, we’ll take it, just one day. After that, we spent a good 12 hours there, and immediately we clicked again and enjoyed ourselves. She wasn’t even supposed to be a part of the film. It was really about the place.

TC: We were interested in the legacy of her house. When we learned about it and were sitting in it, we thought this was a really important institution. She was intrigued by that, because she’s the star. She’s been in little things. We were like, no, no, the house is interesting to us as well. She wanted to know what the story was going to be. We didn’t know. It was going to be whatever it was. Yeah, but what’s the story going to be, she insisted. It literally will be whatever it will be. That’s what really hooked her. It didn’t cross her mind that we wouldn’t have an agenda.

CM: But by the end of day one, she said come back tomorrow. There’s this word in Portuguese called “saudade” that you can’t translate into English. It’s almost like dying of missing someone. By day two, when we got to the house, she was there and told us, “You know, I have to say something, and I really mean it, I had saudade for you guys because we bonded so much. I just want to spend time with you.” We were like, okay, we had saudade for you, too. We missed you. We had an open door to go whenever we wanted, as much as we wanted.

How many hours were spent filming?

CM: For about two weeks…

TC: There’s over 100 hours of footage. We’d have to take a day off here and there out of exhaustion. The filmmaking started with a small group, four girls, and then built from there. Some didn’t want anything to do with it, but by the end, everyone was fine with it. 

CM: We would show up, and they’d want to know why we hadn’t arrived earlier. It was because they were sleeping. 

TC: Again, Luana wasn’t supposed to be in it…

CM: But she was in the house all the time. She’d say, “Tomorrow, I have a performance. You have to come.”  We had to go, of course. 

TC: That’s what we like about the film; it’s about her, and through this house and these other people, it’s about her legacy in motion. 

The documentary captures the day to day and the logistics of running this house — having to pay the rent, setting guidelines and more.

CM: A major thing of every day was if they were going to order pizza or not. For real. There was a constant concern of what they were going to eat. That’s what I really love about the film. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, there’s just a common humanity when you live with each other. What should we eat? I have that discussion with Teddy all the time. 

TC: Too much. [Laughs]

CM: That was beautiful for us to witness. There’s so much exploitation of sex workers in general. They’re living their lives, too. They have a job that they’re super proud of, which fulfills their goals and dreams for the future.

TC: Also, in the context of a recognized profession, they get benefits, like social security. 

Carolina, this is your first directorial effort. How was the experience, and what was the dynamic like working with your husband? 

CM: Well, making a film was a first for me. Booming was even a struggle, because I never boomed before. Teddy handled the camera and I held the boom mic. For the majority of the film, no one was wearing a lavalier. 

TC: It was very stressful technically in the beginning. The first day, I grayed; I got sweaty; I was panicking. I was having a meltdown. I’m dealing with the zoom recorder underneath the camera, and then I have a camera mic, and then a boom mic. During the shooting, one of the jacks didn’t work on the donated camera. I had learned of it in the moment while other stuff was going on, then re-routed the cables, did sound levels and managed the boom. 

CM: We have done tons of other films together in which I wasn’t the director, but I was the emotional support for the director. It was cool to take the lead a little more on this one, and decide where the focus should go. For instance, Teddy speaks some Portuguese, and he can understand my family. The girls have such specific slang to how they speak, even I — a Brazilian person who speaks Portuguese — sometimes I’m like, what are you talking about? I had to direct some of the attention to certain things. It was very stressful and very beautiful; Teddy trusted me so much for my first time co-directing a film. And because we are partners in life too, we can look at someone, consider what’s happening and just make choices. There were some dangerous moments; at one point, I had to say, “We’re going to run to this bar right now and we’re going to hide.” He didn’t think twice, even though I think he really wanted to stay in the street, but he respected the decision. 

TC: It was a process of trusting everyone. Because we’re so close, I think that added to the comfort level of everyone. We interacted a lot; we became close by doing it. But when we’re filming, it’s not like we’re asking questions. There’s nothing like that; everything that seems like an interview was totally spontaneous. 

Was it just you two as far as the crew went?

TC: Yeah, it couldn’t have been any other way. What Carolina was saying before about Luana’s other experiences with interviews, that’s when she’s on, and she’s going to say her things that are important and go more into the political situation. We made it a point to say, no, this isn’t that. There was a process of being on, then tiring of being on, and us not trying to have them on. It would just breakdown to them being bored with us filming them and then doing their own thing. It was a small space, too. 

CM: With 32 people in it. 

TC: There’s a lot of dancing with what’s going on in the room, not wanting to interfere with the progression of events — when clients would come in, the dangerous periods. But by the end, we were family, and nothing was going to happen to us. 

One thing about the documentary is that it’s observational and impressionistic. There’s no contextualizing of what’s onscreen, and I was wondering about the decision behind that.

TC: Yes, observational — that’s what I love. To us, it was about the people and the beauty of Luana and her philosophy. The politics can be found in other films easily. You almost never find a personal, intimate situation. That’s just lacking in today’s movies, I think.

CM: We think. 

TC: Everything is like, you watch the first seen and, oh, this has an agenda. It’s going to tell me about these things. It just makes me turn off my emotions; it talks to this [Points to head] and films should talk to the heart. 

CM: In an era of social media, we’re so used to getting the quick fix all the time. You see that now in some documentaries, where everything has to have music behind it, otherwise people lose interest. To me, with this film, it’s a great opportunity for us to be present as filmmakers and maybe the audience would like to be too, for an hour and a few minutes of life. 

TC: People are people. People are not living the agenda of their circumstances. I feel like those things will be there no matter what. Our hope is that the movie will be so intriguing that you’ll take action and Google Luana. Then all of those facts will come out. To me, the beauty of the film is that when her close friends watch it, they’re going to feel like Luana’s still alive. Because that’s Luana, that’s what it’s like to hang out with her. That’s more of a special kind of representation than is generally done nowadays in documentaries. 

Faith and spirituality are a big part of the home. Could you speak a little more on this?

CM: Brazil is the biggest Catholic country in the world. There are a lot of religions from Africa that came with the slave trades. When you see Luana clapping, she’s doing Candomblé, a Macumba, which is — I don’t even know what the name in English is — like a spirit religion. I think, with Brazil, there is a lot of necessity in believing in something greater than your present situation and to keep going and being positive. The house was very respectful of all the religions that the girls had. They talked about God — which is Catholic — and at the same time, they were making little offerings for different saints, which is not necessarily something from the Catholic religion, neither the offerings with the incense nor the candles as well.

TC: They have their own rituals of the house, too. Religion was an aspect that we didn’t think would be so prevalent, but that was something we learned along the way. 

CM: A lot has to do with protection. It’s such a dangerous lifestyle. 

TC: There are various levels. Emilly and Gabi were particularly spiritual. 

Speaking of Gabi, incorporated throughout, there’s a section in which she records nightlife with her phone. How did you acquire the footage? 

TC: Another thing of discovery was that most, if not all sex workers, set up their dates online. They’re not literally standing on the street. That was interesting because it showed a generational shift. There were beautiful scenes cut of Luana talking about working by flashlight in the old days, with fireflies around. There was one scene in which she talked about someone who was killed in the street because a car couldn’t see them. In contrast, the younger generation would go out to party sometimes, and then things would happen. But they would normally set up dates online. I felt the footage had to be a part of the story because Gabi was live-streaming a lot.

CM: They also understood the implications of us walking around Lapa with a camera and microphone… seeing the stream on Facebook, we asked could we use this? And they were like, of course.

TC: They thought making the film was no big deal. When we see it, we’re all going to cry. But when we were doing it, when we asked them to shoot some stuff, they were like whatever. They were thinking of staging things. 

But you didn’t want that.

TC: No. Gabi’s footage happened by accident, of just being friends on Facebook with her. She was starting to post on Facebook Live, and I figured out how to access it— 

CM: But we asked too. 

TC: Yeah, it wasn’t behind anyone’s back. It was totally organic. Whereas when we would ask them to shoot whatever they were doing, they asked us what we wanted. It never materialized because life is hectic.

You had 100 hours of footage. How was the editing process?

CM: Hell. [Laughs]

TC: No, it was heaven. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I felt every emotion. I’d be laughing at footage; I’d be getting teary-eyed day after day watching the same thing. But when it got technical, and you have to cut out scenes, it became a hell. Someone’s going to say Brazilians talk a lot, but there was so much talking in the film that there was no air. Up until the cut that you saw, it was too much for English readers to comprehend. I think if you’re a natural Portuguese speaker, even then it’s challenging because there are dialects and slang from different areas of Brazil in the movie. And it’s just talking. It became hard to figure out what was being said and make it a watchable film. It went through so many shapes. It was like heaven and hell, not to make it a religious parable. I loved it, but towards the end, I was having breakdowns because you were dealing with people’s lives, what you were showing and not, what stories were there and not. It was a moral journey. Even our approach to it, of not having an agenda, raised issues in the editing room. Then my producer came in and helped me with the final edit cut by cut — sitting with him for two or three weeks, day after day. Even up until the week before our premiere, we were re-arranging scenes. But it feels done. 

We also needed the 100-plus hours of footage translated. We had zero money. We found this film angel to translate the majority of the footage, and she just grinded it out. That alone took two years. Thank god, because we would be talking about this 10 years from now without her. For every minute of footage, it would take five hours. We wanted all of it translated because we didn’t want the translator to make choices in what the edit was. There were other people who tried to help with the translation, but after a day, it was way too intense for them, which was completely understandable. 

CM: I would try to do it on the weekends, because I have a full-time job during the week, and it was too much. 

TC: Viviane Faver is really a saint — over a hundred hours of translating. She’s a journalist, so she’s into it. She’s from Rio, and was as passionate as we were. People told us about paid services that would do the translation, but it wouldn’t work because there was so much slang. Every person was from a different area of Brazil, and they had their own accents. Even Vivian would have to Google words and phrases. 

There were different angels along the way as well, not too push the religious themes, like the person who gave us the camera and the computer to edit on for free.

There were 32 people living in the house while you were filming. What was the rate of occupancy? Was it stable?

TC: Our short period of filming was also because people do come and go. If we were to come back to follow up, everybody would’ve been gone. That’s why we wanted a short amount of time to really get to know the people that were there at that moment. 

CM: They travel around to different “squares,” like Lapa, and come back from time to time. I think there’s an average of 25–32 of them there, but that doesn’t mean it was always going to be the same people. 

TC: The beautiful thing about the home is that people would actually stay for years. There are other houses around the country, but they’re not Luana’s house. 

CM: They think the owners run the homes like pimps. You pay part of what you made that night to the pimp, and then you have the home. That’s not what it is at all with Luana. They would pay a fee to stay the night, and if you couldn’t, Luana would work it out with you. But she’s not what you’d think of as a pimp.

TC: She’s not a pimp at all.

She even talks about it in the film.

CM: Exactly. 

TC: Again, it’s a beautiful thing in our eyes. It’s an alternative situation to a sucky situation. 

Luana passed away in 2017—

TC: Six months after we filmed. If the filming didn’t occur when we did it, it would’ve never happened. 

CM: A lot of things changed, from the city of Rio to the country itself. As we were filming, the president [Dilma Rousseff] was impeached. Shortly after we filmed, the Olympics ended. Rio went bankrupted. The neighborhood of Lapa has had a curfew for a while, so businesses have to close early. Violence is out of control there now. 

TC: A lot of the restaurants in the area are no longer there; they’re empty storefronts. 

CM: Unfortunately, the house is not the same. It’s still there, and some of the girls are taking care of it, but it’s too dangerous to be there. If there’s a curfew for the neighborhood, it means that people are not out. It’s not the same. The neighborhood had a vibrant nightlife since the 1920s and 30s. We filmed this reality that people knew at the last moment.

Tanner Tafelski (@TTafelski) is a film writer and journalist based in New York City. He frequently contributes to Hyperallergic, Kinoscope and The Village Voice. Find him on Instagram, Letterboxd and WordPress.

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