Under the streetlamps of Lapa in Rio de Janeiro, one of Brazil’s iconic transgender stars and rights activist, Luana Muniz, has opened a new hostel for transgender sex-workers. In QUEEN OF LAPA Muniz, herself a sex-worker since the age of 11, opens the door to her hostel and the conflicts, friendships and personalities that reside within.
A safe space for the transgender workers, Muniz’s hostel is a unique place in what is otherwise considered a violent and tumultuous city. This reality is present throughout the documentary, and the women living at the hostel often have to put on an act of bravado to survive. In revealing moments, however, raw emotion and genuine lived experiences are recounted to the camera, offering rare insights into past experiences of trauma, violence and rape. The life of a sex-worker is by no means a simple or easy one, but the documentary – like Muniz’s hostel – is a safe space to discuss these events, without judgment or patronising sympathy. THE QUEEN OF LAPA defies such sympathy: Muniz’s hostel is not a place for society’s lepers, but is where people are allowed, unapologetically, to be themselves.
Carolina Monnerat and Theodore Collatos’ documentary allows for a glimpse into the complex lives of the women who live under Muniz’s roof. While the beginning opens up into a discussion about bills, there is chaotic energy in the hostel, with something always seemingly happening, and with bold personalities often colliding. Despite passionate personalities, we are repeatedly reminded that those who live in the hostel are like family to one another. QUEEN OF LAPA is a humane and illuminating documentary. There is an insight into the lives of others, as though a veil has been lifted into a small microcosm of life in Lapa, and the viewer is allowed to watch, unobtrusively and without judgment, select moments of the lives of a group of women. While their lifestyle might seem unconventional to some, it is never portrayed in a scandalising or over-dramatised way. While stereotypes of transgender life can be perceived as over-the-top and camp, the film is very grounding.
While these women are traditionally known as women of the night, it is hard not to miss the daylight in this film. The subjects are shrouded by darkness and low-level lighting and it would have been nice to more often see these women in natural light, both physically and figuratively. QUEEN OF LAPA can sometimes feel disjointed, as scenes flow into one another and night never ends. It is difficult not to yearn to learn more about this segment of life in Rio, but perhaps it is not our place; our position as voyeur is already privileged, and what right do we have to know more about these women’s pasts, other than what they have chosen to tell us?
QUEEN OF LAPA doesn’t have a peak, fall, or obvious climax. This documentary isn’t about the drama and when the title credits roll, it reads as a very fitting homage to the life of Muniz, forming part of the legacy she herself said she wished to leave behind.