There was regal radiance in the life and work of Brazilian activist Luana Muniz and the Queen of Lapa documentary, directed by Theodore Collatos and Carolina Monnerat, is a resplendent example of cinema verité that truly invites the viewers to inhabit the safe haven that Muniz created for sex workers including transvestites, transgender individuals and HIV-positive individuals.
The Brazilian film, set in one of Rio de Janeiro’s more dangerous neighborhoods, shines with the utmost dignity of humanity. Unpretentious, the film’s strength comes from the fact that the directors did not use a script. Queen of Lapa is available for passholders and individual ticket buyers now through July 19 as part of the Utah Film Center’s 17th annual Damn These Heels Queer Film Festival.
Muniz, who died in 2017 at the age of 59, ran a communitarian hostel and was a mentor, peacemaker, actor, cabaret singer and community activist. Thus, the film’s structure is as focused on the individuals who were abandoned or forced out of their homes because of financial distress as they are on the benefactor who took them into her large home. At the time of the filming, there were 32 residents in Muniz’s home. Muniz makes it clear that she should never be called a “pimp,” but an “agent.” In reality, she fulfills the role of a loving mentor as the best descriptor of her role.
Viewers see Muniz as a sharp wit with an incredible intelligence who cut through bullshit and hypocrisy with disarming brilliance. A genuine matriarch, she ran her home with rigorous rules and expectations but she also made sure there was space for affection and support even when the residents would do something too risky or stupid.
Muniz was well known for her activism. In 2010, she gained attention for a scene in the Brazilian broadcast of Profissão Repórter, when she kicked and beat a potential client who apparently got cold feet, which angered her because, well, time is money. As the scene unfolded in front of the cameras, she said, as translated, “Do you think you can mess with transvestites?” The line became part of a meme tagline that became part of the campaign for LGBTQ+ rights in Brazil.
Muniz’s life story has attracted many features. Prior to Queen of Lapa’s release, her story was the subject of a 2017 documentary Luana Muniz: Daughter of the Moon, directed by Rian Córdova and Leonardo Menezes.
She was more than a sex worker who took pride in her profession. She left home at the age of nine, when Brazil was under military rule, and began working as a transvestite sex worker. Mother Luana, as she was often called in the community, was president of the Association of Transvestite, Transsexual and Transgender Gender Workers of Rio de Janeiro (Agenttes) and she helped found the Damas Project, supported by Rio’s municipal government with the objective of providing vocational counseling and training to augment their sources of income. The film shows the meeting room in her home with photos of celebrities and allies covering the walls. Among them are a Catholic priest, Fábio de Melo, a critic-turned-ally.
The creative decision behind the making of this excellent documentary was summarized in an interview with Monnerat published previously in Brazil. She highlighted Muniz’s straightforward loquaciousness. “Luana is an artist, a philosopher. Her sentences deserved to be in a book,” she explains. “One of the phrases is ‘when I was little I wanted to be a rich, famous, beautiful, married woman. Now I don’t want to be a woman; I want to be a transvestite. I am treated like a lady, but if they offend me, I become a male, a devil,’ or ‘I got married eight times, but I left the eight because I am like Marilyn Monroe. I value diamonds more than men. Diamonds are forever. I like money more than a stick, the stick is a complement,’ and ‘I did several plastic surgeries and I just didn’t have an operation on the waist, calves, feet, hands and stick. My cock is here, I love it, and if I could, I would increase it.’”
The documentary zeroes in on Muniz’s prescient activism, as the rights of sex workers around the world have moved forward as a critical issue on the LGBTQ+ policy front. She was a cosmopolitan who had lived in France, Italy and Portugal as a sex worker and when she returned to Brazil, the cause became central to her activism. Muniz never let her guard down. As Monnerat explains in the aforementioned interview, Luana walked out with the filming crew to a waiting taxi and an intoxicated man started heckling her. “She took a nightstick from her purse and started hitting the man in front of everyone and nobody did anything. She didn’t beat to hurt, but to send him away. It was a time when we could see the side of violence, used if necessary.”
Queen of Lapa is a well-deserved tribute to Muniz. Viewers see her relishing the gossip from her residents and neighbors. She proudly shows the spot where she was arrested after shooting an intruder. She is seen without makeup and she does not shy away from showing off a lifetime of breast implants. Muniz triumphed over a long string of incidents where others tried to demonize or dehumanize her for her livelihood and causes.
The sisterhood in the house is delightfully raucous, even when they are debating whether or not they should feel sexual pleasure with their clients. Indeed, Muniz’s regal legacy must be preserved and expanded, the clearest epiphany to be enjoyed from this marvelous, compact documentary.