There’s a sense of welcome intrusion when you watch Queen of Lapa. Directed by married couple Carolina Monnerat and Theodore Collatos, this cinema verité documentary is a portrait of a community in the Lapa neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, led by actress, cabaret performer, activist and proud sex worker Luana Muniz. But rather than guide our journey into the tight-knit chosen family Luana has built within the trans sex worker community, Monnerat and Collatos ask us just to inhabit it. Their cameras feel like visitors that have been allowed into a safe haven that would otherwise have excluded them. Around us at any given moment are young trans women who, banished from their home and in need of financial security amid a world that so easily discards them, have turned to sex work to survive (and thrive, even). Luana, who’s been a proud sex professional since she was eleven years old, has carved a space for them in Lapa in a building she runs like a cross between a hostel and a commune.
Nearing 60 years old at the time of the shoot, Luana is arguably one of the most recognizable trans figures in Brazilian history. She handles herself with a regal demeanor that befits the title of Monnerat and Collatos’ film. She truly is the Queen of Lapa and is treated as such by the group of girls she mentors (just don’t call her a pimp, as she notes in the doc, she prefers the title of “agent”). Rather than show us Luana in all her glory — in photo shoots and stage performances, which the doc does eventually provide — Queen of Lapa is most interested in letting us live in her world for a while. Much of the documentary thus takes place not out in the dimly lit streets of Lapa, but in the hostel’s makeshift homey living room. It’s there where, in moments of candor between Luana and her girls, we get to hear about their day-to-day lives and get to witness the at-times petty, at-times sisterly bond these women share.
It’s in that living room, flanked by picture frames that chronicle Luana’s larger-than-life career that she tells the camera, as if it were an old friend she’s having over for some late afternoon gossip, how she once was arrested on that very spot for shooting a thief who’d broken in. Unguarded in both her demeanor and her appearance (no makeup, a headscarf, comfy clothes that nevertheless show off the many breast implants she’s had over the years), she candidly talks about how she was taken into custody and manhandled by the police. As she was being interrogated and to fight the disrespect she faced from a police officer, she remembers calmly, she cut herself with an ashtray and yelled she had AIDS, cancer, syphilis, hepatitis — anything, really, so that everyone would step away from the blood she was now dripping all over. As with all the other anecdotes she shares throughout the doc, Luana is able to capture the angered frustration she felt at the time and the cunning she’s long had to resort to in order to survive. As shocking as the scene may read, for her it’s but one of many instances where her own dignity was left at the mercy of men who have long underestimated her and stripped her, in their eyes, of her own humanity.
Similar stories make their way into Queen of Lapa which roams the hostel rooms and finds Luana’s girls sharing anecdotes that paint a picture of the transphobia many of them have experienced. Their stories — about clients approaching them and asking them point-blank “Are you afraid of getting raped?,” about men stripping them and luring them into the woods, about near-death experiences and too-close-for-comfort assault attempts — are delivered with the same mundanity as Luana’s. For these girls — some of whom are saving up for breast implants, others for gender-reassignment surgery, some of whom openly enjoy the sex they have with their clients, some of whom disagree (“Real whores never feel pleasure with their clients”) — these anecdotes are everyday occurrences and Queen of Lapa doesn’t attempt to sensationalize their stories.
Instead they are moments that punctuate but don’t define their lives: after all, we see them enjoying themselves out on the streets (on Facebook Live feeds we get to see on screen) and we see Luana lighting up the stage during a performance of “Private Dancer.” This is no lurid doc where these trans sex workers are required to exploit their survival narratives in order to earn our sympathy. Instead, Monnerat and Collatos encourage us just to watch, to listen, to witness. And, as Luana hopes, to imagine a future that will be make her legacy live on even after she’s gone.