“Light a Candle for My Guardian Angel So Nothing Bad Happens”: Theodore Collatos and Carolina Monnerat on Their Portrait of Trans Lives in Struggle, Queen of Lapa
With nearly 20 credits as a director and as many as an editor, Theodore Collatos has been quietly making documentaries and narratives to critical acclaim for the last decade, often collaborating with his wife, former professional dancer Carolina Monnerat, as producer and actor. For Collatos’ sixth feature, and first with Monnerat as co-director, they returned to Monnerat’s native city of Rio for an intimate and revealing look at an underground cultural icon. Queen of Lapa, named for a district renowned for its sex trade, devotes its focus to the late Luana Muniz, a trans-rights advocate, founder of Luana’s House (a former hotel known as a haven for runaway trans teens and new sex workers), and paragon of Rio’s drag, burlesque and cabaret scenes. Granted unprecedented access to Luana’s House and its residents, Collatos and Monnerat present a compelling portrait of struggle, pride, and community. On the eve of their film’s premiere at the Maryland Film Festival this weekend, I spoke to them about their aesthetics, their process, and the political relevance of their subject.
Filmmaker: Rewatching your short film Time, I notice that you seem to use the same fly-on-the-wall remote view of the proceedings as you do in Queen of Lapa. Why in Queen of Lapa did you choose not to engage with your subject through interviews?
Collatos: It’s intrusive to ask a question. Do you talk or do you listen? You’re going to get more information if you listen. A lot of the stuff we’ve done is with real people, not actors. So even if we’re doing a drama, you’re dealing with someone who’s not the most seasoned actor, so if you give them space to feel comfortable, then they can give, and you’re getting takes from them anyways. In the end you decide what’s best, but you’re not manipulating anything.
Monnerat: And there’s another layer to it as well I think, in this case, because Teddy doesn’t fluently speak Portuguese. He was the camera, I was the sound operator. So it was interesting for me to see what he was choosing to shoot and why, because he probably didn’t always understand exactly what they were saying and what was going on. That adds another layer of subliminal perspective. It was also a little scary at first.
Filmmaker: It’s a creative decision that has an effect. Asking a direct question changes what your subjects choose to share with you, what they willingly will show of themselves.
Collatos: Right, I was responding to the energy of what was in the room, the spirit of the conversation, and more the subtext than the text. Sometimes I can feel where to go, and if things are getting tense, I’m not necessarily going to stop filming or necessarily feel the same tension, which I think benefited the film.
Filmmaker: You have the same aesthetic in Time, where you choose not to go into the cell with the staged inmates, but because the viewer doesn’t know it’s staged, you impose this view on the audience in a way that implies you are limited to watching what naturally happens behind these bars, just beyond reach, and you couldn’t manipulate those subjects if you tried.
Collatos: Well, who are we to say what the situation is?
Filmmaker: Right, and people will invariably not give you the same thing if you attempt to control them or ask that they repeat something they did naturally, if you try to get a better take out of them. If you try to provoke or interrogate or direct them, it’s not the same as them just living their life and you being there on the periphery of that.
Collatos: All of these are choices. Time has elements that are directed, because it’s shot in a real jail, but it wasn’t functional. So there’s documentary elements, and it’s presented as a documentary, but it’s not traditional. All those people had been in jail, but they were placed in those cells. One of those guys we just pulled in off the street because someone didn’t show up. We put them there. Some of the conversations were orchestrated, but I wouldn’t say directed.
Filmmaker: That’s your proprietary aesthetic and it plays so beautifully in Queen of Lapa when Luana’s girls are getting dressed, or lounging, or doing their hair and makeup, preparing to go out to work, and the conversations don’t feel forced at all.
Collatos: They go all the places — some of them dangerous and some of them sad — that a real conversation can go.
Filmmaker: It’s allowing the subject to have some dignified vulnerability, without judgement. And then it seems like once they’re comfortable, your subjects open up. Gabi, who is such a compelling character, tells this heartbreaking story of returning to her home province to visit her father, meeting biological half-siblings who look like her. These moments seem like they could be interviews, like she could be speaking to you both just off camera, but she’s not.
Collatos: It wasn’t prodded at all.
Filmmaker: They’re beyond your reach because of the language difference, but Carolina speaks fluently and could have been more directly engaged with the subjects as well. You both opted not to go that route. There’s a compositional construct going on there which allows something casual to feel like it’s being drawn out of her.
Collatos: It was a conversation. She was generous. She offered us those moments. She let us in.
Filmmaker: You shot this in just two weeks. It seems like that’s not a lot of time to gain a relationship with your subjects, if you start as strangers. Without asking, these characters seem extremely open and willing to perform.
Collatos: They provide — I wouldn’t say they performed.
Monnerat: They trusted us because from day one we spent ten to twelve hours with them, and there was a period that was just them feeling us out, us feeling them out, and then by day two, we were close friends. It became them wanting us to go everywhere with them, to show us all the bits and secrets and parts of the house.
Collatos: And everyone gets bored of each other too. It ebbs and flows.
Filmmaker: Carolina, in your director’s statement you talk about knowing who Luana was from a young age in Brazil. The two of you went back to Rio and first made contact with her six years prior to making the film. What was the length of that interim decided by? Were you looking to finance the film in a more traditional way? It’s a long time to wait.
Monnerat: It was really hard to find a way to contact her, honestly. It took us two months.
Collatos: And it didn’t start out as a film.
Monnerat: What happened was, Teddy had been in Rio several times. We’ve been together for many years, and every time we would go to my mother’s house. She lives on the street where Luana’s girls work. So for years, Teddy was seeing [these sex workers] and being shocked by the open nature of their work, how they coexist on the same block as little kids coming and going to school, and the harmony of how people need to live, to survive there. He wanted to take pictures of them.
Collatos: I’ve been shooting for years, so for me, how could I not want to include them? But at the same time, you can’t just go up and take their picture without being respectful. That one block, that was interesting on a historical level. Why that one block? This was the block that Carolina grew up on. So I wanted to incorporate it into my work.
Monnerat: The idea everyone has about Luana’s girls is that they’re dangerous. That they will kill you. And sure, maybe sometimes that happens — but you’d have to do something to them for them to attack you. They would need a reason to kill you. So I warned Teddy because he’s white and has blue eyes that he’s a target in Brazil. I knew we couldn’t just go up and talk to them. We can’t interfere with business. So we had to figure out who owns the block? And it was a huge research, just to determine that. It took months. We talked to many people in the neighborhood, went to many LGBTQ community meetings, and events —
Collatos: People who we knew from Caroline’s dance community, they were also very helpful….
Monnerat: That’s how we found out about the house.
Collatos: The story just became bigger.
Filmmaker: She seems so well-known in the film, and the house itself seems like such an established and notorious institution. It’s crazy that it could also be a well-kept secret.
Collatos: It’s kind of like this. We’re sitting in a restaurant right now, but who’s the owner? If we want to shoot here, we’ve got to find out who’s in charge.
Monnerat: And I wasn’t in that world. Once we figured it out, I made the connection. She’s that lady. If you go to any one of my friends in Brazil, you ask them if they know who Luana Muniz is, they couldn’t tell you. They know her as she was portrayed on TV — as “that crazy lady…” They don’t know her by name. So once we figured out where she lived, we went there, but she didn’t want to see us. There was a doorman, and we were asking him, begging him really, to let us see her, talk to her, and she said she didn’t want to talk to anyone. It was hard. We spent two months looking for this person and she didn’t want to talk to us. So as a last resort, we went into this little bar that’s next door to where she lived, and I wrote her a letter.
Collatos: This is all the same day. Discovering her took a long time. But all of this happened the same day we went to the house.
Monnerat: She didn’t want to see us, talk to us, nothing. And we had printed a portfolio of Teddy’s previous work, pictures he’d taken, and I wrote a letter to her saying why this would be important to us, and I gave it to the doorman, and we left. We didn’t even have a cell phone. We got back to my mom’s house in Gloria [adjacent to the Lapa district], and the phone rings. It’s her. And she says, “Come back here. I want to talk to you.” We went back and spent four hours in her place just talking to her, and it was just like the Luana we showed to you in the film. From the moment she opened the door, she was topless, and we watched these drag shows she’s done, and we talked and she said we could shoot her.
Collatos: And the thing that put us over the edge was the note but also the photos. She saw that we were artists. And she’s an artist.
Filmmaker: You penetrated that wall she has up to protect herself. Because people are probably trying to get something from her, more often than not.
Monnerat: Yeah, that’s what she shared with us. How many times people had tried to do work with her, and she said no. Because she doesn’t want to be exploited.
Collatos: She’s never done any type of film project at this time. So it was special. She made the exception for us. They always presented her, on the news, in a strange light.
Filmmaker: She says that in the film. “Don’t call me exotic. I’m not an animal.” Obviously it was in the entreaty you guys made.
Collatos: We told her up front that we didn’t know what it was going to be. She wanted to know, and we told her we had no idea.
Monnerat: Eventually they started referring to us as, “The Big Brother.”
Filmmaker: Like The Real World?
Collatos: That was their reference.
Monnerat: That was how they made sense of it. We weren’t asking them questions, we weren’t seeing them in a studio. And it’s funny, because they barely watch TV. They watched movies mostly.
Collatos: So at that point we told her, “We’re going back to the US to raise money, get grants, whatever it takes.” And then we didn’t get any grants. For six years. We came close, but no one wanted to help us.
Monnerat: We also made two other movies in between.
Filmmaker: And at what point did you realize that it had to be a film?
Collatos: The moment that we met her, it changed. She’s the most interesting person we’ve ever met. Even if it was a short, it had to be her in motion. Everything out of her mouth was either poetry or philosophy. I took pictures, more portrait stuff. But we had to make a choice. We didn’t have a crew.
Monnerat: (laughs) It was just us, and I had never done sound before.
Collatos: Around the time of the Olympics, Carolina’s work brought her back to Rio. And I knew it had to be then. I just said, “We have to force this to happen.” It’s the kind of situation where you’re old friends. When we saw her again, what we had said back six years ago, that was set in stone. If we said we were going to do something, we were going to do it. So we got the camera from a friend, borrowed all the equipment, found a producer who helped get me there, and we were off.
Filmmaker: At the end of the film, you see Luana’s birthday. You don’t make the connection until that point, that if Luana started working on the street at the age of 11, she would have been turning to sex work either in the same year or the year after Brazil underwent a military coup and the junta came into power. It took them a decade to form a provisional government, and in that time it was the entire nation under military rule.
Monnerat: My family was involved. My mother was arrested five times, my grandmother was one of the leaders of the revolution, and at that time she was in her sixties already. She became a well-known political figure. In Brazil, my mother’s last name is Monnerat, and to this day when I go home people ask if I know of her: Elsa Monnerat. Luana shared so many horrible stories of being transgender at that time in Brazil. They would tie trans people to poles, and whole mobs would throw urine and feces at them, beat them, leave them there in the sun. It was an intense time, really difficult. They made examples of them. I believe that’s when she became someone. Someone in the streets. And then she left and went to Europe.
Filmmaker: How old was she when she fled?
Collatos: Probably in her twenties.
Filmmaker: So she survived there on the street during the occupation for over ten years. She came of age that way. It’s amazing.
Monnerat: And our current president is a fan of that time. So it’s an interesting cycle.
Filmmaker: She saw the worst of what could happen. And then she went to Europe?
Collatos: She was in Italy for several years.
Monnerat: She was married to a number of different men in Europe.
Filmmaker: And she brought back a European sensibility about visibility for trans people?
Collatos: Well not only that, but it was when she was in Europe that she decided that she wanted to be an artist. You know, all these years as a prostitute, as a sex worker advocate, she always identified first and foremost as an artist. That was how she saw herself in the world.
Filmmaker: And that’s because of the cabaret culture in Europe? It’s interesting if what she saw there, while she was effectively in exile, informed some concept of how the sex business could be run in a way that was founded on creativity and respect for the worker. It’s the kind of labor rights thinking that would have been prevalent in Cold War Europe, late ’70s, early ’80s, when she was there.
Collatos: But it’s not like she was experiencing any level of glamor, like she was at the Moulin Rouge or something.
Monnerat: No, not at all. She was not always in big cities, and things were not safe for her there in Europe either. She told us this story many times, of how she was working in Italy, with another woman, a black woman, in the middle of the night, and there were no streetlights on their block, or any of the surrounding blocks. This was in the era before cellphones. And Luana tells this story about how she would joke with the woman that she needed to be careful in the dark as a black woman, because no one could see her. And then that woman was run over by a car. And she died. Luana’s life was full of these types of experiences.
Collatos: She was still underground.
Monnerat: She was coordinating for the girls in Brazil to go there, after she came back to Rio. She was helping them get their passport, hooking them up with contacts abroad, and that means they get a spot on a corner, or a website. In Luana’s day, it was a street corner. Nowadays, it’s all done over WhatsApp.
Filmmaker: So she may have found whoever “the Luana” was in these other places. Did she speak the language?
Monnerat: She spoke several languages and was adamant about the fact that she wasn’t a pimp. But she didn’t take any money from the girls. They paid rent.
Filmmaker: She wasn’t exploiting them. She provided protection, just as someone else did for her when she was young.
Monnerat: She owned the block. They were her girls.
Filmmaker: She was in someone else’s favor at a time, and she was influenced by that and came back to her country and said “I’m going to do the same thing for these girls. I’m going to be that person.”
Monnerat: I think she went beyond. It was incredible. She was the communicator between these girls and the police, the hospitals —
Collatos: Their mental health services —
Monnerat: In Brazil, the ambulances are privately owned. If you don’t have insurance, you can’t get access to that kind of emergency care. Well Luana had her own ambulance. She made sure those girls got taken where they needed to go.
Collatos: She was the enforcer. But she went through her own process. Everything in Europe was a huge inspiration for her, but she still came back to Brazil homeless, at her lowest point.
Filmmaker: So it’s a more hard-fought progression.
Collatos: She did the personal work. There were things that happened that allowed this progression to what we captured in the movie, but she had to work toward it. It wasn’t all rosey and she came back inspired and took charge.
Monnerat: She was still on the fringe, especially in terms of addiction. But she got clean. She did a lot for transvestites.
Filmmaker: I was going to say, that term doesn’t mean the same thing here. It’s interesting they don’t use the trans identifier, and in general, are so culturally opposite in the way they interact and discuss their own relevant issues, from say, how the US discussions of these same subjects might go.
Monnerat: That’s their language. They’re not going to change it. That’s who they are.
Collatos: And there’s no concept or notion of the politically correct in their society. It’s just not the way they talk, not the way they think.
Filmmaker: And you didn’t want to clarify that with any explanation in the course of the film; you chose to leave it as is.
Collatos: We didn’t want to censor them. That’s who they were when we met and we didn’t want to film them and change them in the process by explaining anything. Luana didn’t believe in that. She was tough. But it wasn’t an overnight thing. You have to know what to aspire to. She was that when we met her, but she saw it [in Europe] and became it. And that’s what she was offering the whole country in a way.
Monnerat: She saw what she did as a civic duty. As her public service.
Filmmaker: The girls all seem to come from very different backgrounds.
Collatos: It depends. A lot of them came from the country to make money in the city.
Filmmaker: I love the line that Gabi says about “I light a candle for my guardian angel so nothing bad happens.” It seemed like she was so proud in that moment, so strong, and yet so in touch with the risk she was taking by living her life that way, by being who she wanted to.
Collatos: She really believed that. A lot of the girls did. Gabi always said her prayers and left something in that little shrine she kept to the saint, and they were all over the house too, those candles. Even if she took a piece of candy for herself from the plate at the foot of the statue, like you see in the movie, she always returned it.
Queen of Lapa premieres Friday, May 10th, at the Maryland Film Festival.