This is a repost of our review from Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019. Queen of Lapa is available on VOD platforms Friday.
Luana Muniz has been a sex worker since age of 11 and has also gone onto be a cabaret performer and featured on soap operas, the stage, film and television. She is the founder and president of The Association of Transgender Sex Professionals in Brazil and has advocated for transgender sex professionals for almost her entire life. Known as the Queen of Lapa, she has established a safe house of sorts in the neighborhood of Lapa where she supports and provides a safe environment for other transgender sex workers to live and work, even providing medical services, as she owns her own ambulance service.
It is this legacy that husband-and-wife filmmaking duo Theodore Collatos and Carolina Monnerat set out to document and present to those outside of Brazil who might not have heard of the influential Muniz. And, they do so by focusing on Muniz’s safehouse hostel and her residents with a fly-on-the-wall approach. Obviously, documentary filming is inherently invasive in a sense, but the two do so with minimal involvement and influence, a deeply respectful approach that the centers all those involved as the authors, facilitators and guides of the film. They hold the power and Collatos and Monnerat are simply granted the access and space to bear witness for the rest of the world.
Its lack of lavishness should not be mistaken for a lack of style and/or creativity because what Monnerat and Collatos have done here is something altogether different and remarkable; they have established an immense level of trust and, with it, a wealth of comfort with the individuals they are documenting that the filmmakers’ presence and their camera appear to dissolve into the spaces around them. They are simply present, capturing the intimate trivialities, the rituals of their work and their histories. It’s an unadulterated glimpse into the lives of Muniz and the sex workers who reside on the premises of her hostel.
Monnerat and Collatos present their documentary as a simple shadowing, making it all look so easy, but the fact of the matter is that the majority of the hard work transpired beforehand or behind the scenes. We are witnessing the outcome of that dedication, and the fact that it all seems so simple is a testament to all the work put in by the two of them in order to create such a welcoming and comfortable space for their subjects. The fruits of their labor no doubt causes their doc’s subjects to be genuinely open and honest in front of camera. The most interesting aspect of Queen of Lapa is how they mirror that in presenting the legend that is Luana Muniz.
Of course, they spent ample time alone with Muniz as she discusses her experiences and her history, but the fruits of Muniz’s extensive labor over the decades as an activist and a fighter for the rights and safety of transgender sex workers is presented in subtle, simple terms. Much like Monnerat and Collatos foster an atmosphere of trust and understanding, Muniz has long fostered that same atmosphere for other transgender sex workers, both in her hostel and on her streets. The simple fact that the residents of her hostel appear carefree and comfortable (although dangers still exist) is a testament to her persistent work over the years.
A large part of this progress exists because of her. Sure, the filmmakers could have spent a large portion of the film discussing at length all of her activism and hard-fought accomplishments, but they instead chose to show audiences the outcome of those actions. Queen of Lapa is partially the evidence of that work. There is no need in cataloging Muniz’s bona fides when you can just as easily present the breadth of her legacy. All of her concern and compassion over the past, of the present and for the future manifest in these intimate scenes.