How 'Queen of Lapa' Doc Captures the Intimate Lives of Rio's Trans Sex Workers
Learn how the filmmakers of Queen of Lapa broke cultural barriers to make a radical verite doc about a famous and inspiring trans sex worker named Luana.
Filmmaking team Theodore Collatos (director, Tormenting The Hen, Dipso) and Carolina Monnerat had a once-in-a-lifetime experience over the past five years. When the married couple traveled to visit Carolina’s family in the urban heart of Brazil (the Lapa district), they became intrigued by the pervasive, destigmatized presence of trans sex workers in the neighborhood. The central figure of this community is Luana Muniz, a trans-rights activist and public figure who became a sex worker herself in her teenage years.
Collatos and Monnerat took it upon themselves to document—in the most raw and honest way possible—the dynamics and environment of Luana’s House (a safe place for the workers) as well as Luana’s own story. Their far-from-conventional, non-narrative approach was precisely what earned them unprecedented access. This is how their journey toward completing the feature documentary Queen of Lapa began.
The directing team lived in the house for weeks, their goal to become the fly on the wall, to make sure the camera did not interfere, interrogate or impose: and they succeeded.
Making Queen of Lapa was a tumultuous and joyful experience for Collatos and Monnerat, full of logistical and technical challenges as well. What sacrifices does it take to see this kind of passion project through? When you stray this far from the beaten path to tell your story, it will be an uphill battle. But for these filmmakers, to immerse yourself in a community, to be part of a new family—is just as important as the film. Queen of Lapa made its International Premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest, its NYC premiere at NewFest, played Antenna international Doc/Fest, and won awards at both Sidewalk and Flickers.
Read on for our interview with the filmmaking duo.
[This interview has been edited from the original transcript.]
NFS: How long have you two been working together?
Theodore Collatos: I’m more of the filmmaker and Carolina’s more of the producer. We’ve made a number of features and dozens of shorts.
Carolina Monnerat: I would change that and say Teddy is the filmmaker and I am usually the producer. And it’s an honor to be given the space and encouragement to be a director in this project. That is very dear to my heart, [especially since it’s about] Brazil. But we’re married so, things just intertwine. It’s so involved and that’s really our partnership… We live in the gray. It’s not work, it’s not life, it’s all intertwined.
NFS: What were the major logistical challenges of making the movie?
Collatos: The one that really comes to mind is just getting the equipment into the country and the accessibility of equipment in Brazil. For this film, I got the camera from a friend who works at a studio that kind of let me “borrow” it. He’s a very close friend and you’re taking it to Brazil and you’re gonna do this type of documentary, so that was a lot of trust there, but then there was the issue of getting the equipment through the airport.
NFS: What was the issue there exactly?
Collatos: There was concern about us getting stopped. It was very professional equipment.
Monnerat: Well, just to acknowledge…I’m from Brazil, I’m from Rio. And like, there is a 90 percent chance that you are going to get robbed. How do we insure this really nice camera that our friend has [lent] to us? Even simple things like a boom pole, getting through security in Brazil was like a good 25-minute conversation. I had to demonstrate and talk and explain to them what we were doing and what it’s for and that the boom wasn’t a gun.
Collatos: Even on the level of: you’re not going there for a “professional gig,” you’re just a “tourist” with this ridiculous thing in your backpack. Stuff you wouldn’t think of. You’re dealing with however many thousands of dollars worth of equipment or mics and just little things that add up… But on your back, in a country where you could be robbed immediately.
Monnerat: We stayed with my mom. She lives there, and she would wait for us to get back home to make sure that we were okay, because at that moment, the country was going through a really big, huge political change. We impeached our president while we were there filming. So there was a lot of violence and it escalated. My mother, she would wait for me each night to come back home to go to sleep. Like, okay, you guys have survived. Because the chance of being robbed by someone, being intoxicated by some drugs, or whatever, and having ruthless violence being thrown at us for the equipment, was very high. But, on that note, too, Luana made sure that the whole community around that area…the thieves, everybody...knew that we were there and that we were to not be messed with.
I will never forget: Uber had just come to Brazil at that point. And she would come down and wait with us every time that we would call an Uber from the space, and she would have her batoon. At one moment, there was a homeless man who was drunk and walking around and was messing with us and messing with her. And she punched him. And then we just got in the Uber and went home. Also, we shot this during the Olympics. I truly believe it was an understanding between the government and the criminals to stop violence about tourists being robbed or beaten up. I would say out of all the times we could have shot the film, that was the best time because it was perhaps the safest time to be there.
Collatos: Every block had military-type police there, with M-16’s, securing the area. And even in that context it’s still dangerous.
Monnerat: But all that [being said], Brazil is the most beautiful country and it was just going through turmoil and Luana definitely had our back.
NFS: What was the turning point that made you decide to make the film?
Collatos: It was meeting Luana. We were doing a street photography project in the area and we just felt that the transgender sex workers needed to be a part of it because they worked at the foot of the street where Carolina grew up. And they were so integrated into the community...that fascinated me because the way we deal with prostitution in this country is to criminalize it in a certain way. It was interesting how it was just an accepted thing in Brazil.
Monnerat: I will just say to make sure—Teddy had said that they’re transgender sex workers. They’re not transgender... they’re just trans.
Collatos: They don’t deal with the politically correct terms.
Monnerat: Exactly. It’s difficult for us to talk about it because in Brazil we want to respect the way they want to be called, and they want to be called transvestites.
Collatos: Yeah, proudly.
Monnerat: Luana is such an activist, she is such a visionary, she’s a philosopher almost. How can you not be enlightened around her? She’s such a badass.
Collatos: It was just very personal. Beyond the broader scope of it, Luana’s our friend and we love her.
NFS: My favorite part of the film was the old news clip of Luana and the impact it had on the other girls, how much it inspired them. That was a big moment. It also showed the polar opposite style of documentary. It was a fascinating contrast since that type of reporting approached Luana in a way that felt sort of exploitative and wrong. And then there’s the film you’re watching, which is so different.
Collatos: It’s beautiful you say that because that’s the point of having that in there. She’s famous from that news piece, because that’s a really popular culture program. Her slogan from that piece, “Transvestites are not a mess", has been used in soap operas. It’s part of the cultural dialog.
Monnerat: A slang or an ethos…
Collatos: It’s a catchphrase. That’s a famous news story and it just felt like it had to be in the film. But, the actual reality of the individual lives that she touches is the opposite of what the popular culture is depicting.
NFS: So, that news piece came out many years ago and it caught on. Is she still quasi-famous?
Collatos: Yeah, even more so, because she became involved with politics and activism, even on the level of befriending doctors, befriending bankers, to form a network of support for her hostel and the community, which is all about teaching basic life skills to the girls.
Monnerat: And giving access. If you don’t have private insurance in Brazil and you call an ambulance, you have to pay up front. She had access to an ambulance at all times. If one of the girls needed to be in an ambulance, it wouldn’t be an issue. She gave access to so much: getting a passport, opening a bank account…
Collatos: Seeing a therapist…
NFS: Right, it’s about building the community.
Collatos: That’s how major she was. And she had the self-initiative to become this empowering person.
NFS: Technical stuff: what camera did you shoot on?
Collatos: The C500, basic 24-105 lens, we recorded with an onboard mic and also a boom mic to a 4-channel Zoom and we only used one channel. We had to incorporate the Zoom because one of the channels on the camera didn’t work, which I found out while shooting, which was incredibly stressful.
Monnerat: The day before shooting, yeah. It was his birthday, too and we had a total technical meltdown.
NFS: Did you need all the channels?
Collatos: Well, you’re just learning what works. It’s a two-mic situation and having both channels go into the camera would have been easier and lighter and one channel doesn’t work, you don’t know why, meanwhile you’re shooting something that’s amazing and not getting it. So, I was extremely stressed out the first [few] days of shooting, trying to control our own emotions and meet people. It was really difficult. And Carolina was booming and that was a new thing for her.
Monnerat: I had never boomed before. That first day was brutal. Like 12 hours of booming, my arms were burning…
"It took two years to translate the footage. Even our translators that are native to Rio de Janeiro would have to Google words, phrases, and dialects from other regions of the country that they weren’t familiar with."
NFS: It was interesting to read that you don’t speak Portuguese, but Carolina, you’re a native of Brazil, born in the neighborhood.
Monnerat: I was born and raised there, my whole family lives there. I’m the only one in the United States. But there is slang that is different to different regions and demographics. 100% of the girls didn't come from Rio, they’re coming from different parts of the Amazon. There is a level of education that is not necessarily accessible. People in other states, if they’re not from Rio de Janeiro state or San Paulo state, I’d have some issues understanding their unique slang from their unique areas of the country—discerning what they were saying or even phonetically what they’re saying.
Collatos: We had a translator that helped us, and it took two years to translate the footage. Even our translators that are native to Rio de Janeiro would have to Google words, phrases, and dialects from other regions of the country that they weren’t familiar with. In layman’s terms, I’m from the east coast, and I had no idea what grits were until I was 16. It’s a simplistic way of saying it, but…even our translators had to investigate the language.
"I would be cutting and tearing up, laughing, and giving up, taking breaks, going back, being frustrated, then angry, then happy."
NFS: That’s crazy. Two years? Can you talk more about that process of getting the footage translated? And how much footage was there?
Collatos: I mean, it was horrifying. And it was well over 100 hours of footage. We literally had no financial support whatsoever. No grants came through, so we found this… angel to do the bulk of the translation. She’s a journalist from Rio and lives in New York City, and she just grinded it out because of passion for the project. If we didn’t find her, you wouldn’t have heard about this film for many years. A major shout-out to Viviane Faver. My heart is swelling for what she did because it takes many hours to even translate five minutes.
NFS: Did she create captions? Or a timecoded transcript?
Collatos: We used Final Cut Pro X because it has a feature that makes subtitling easier. We would have Viviane cut and paste the subtitles over all the raw footage.
Monnerat: There were times when I would sit in the office on a Saturday and I would spend ten hours and I was like, “Okay, let’s see how much I translated." It would be maybe ten minutes. It’s so intricate. We wanted to make sure that when Teddy was watching the footage to edit that he knew all the nuances of what people are saying. So, no nuance was left behind.
Collatos: There were points where Viviane would translate passages where I had no idea what the sentence meant. It would be like “the chicken jumps on the couch to go to the fair.” I’d be like, "What the fuck?" I understand basic Portuguese and can generally follow along but in this situation, within a day I was like, “I have no idea what anyone’s saying.” I think it was actually a beautiful thing because it made the shooting unique: I would respond with the camera towards the energy and not the words per se. For the filmmaker, it’s a really beautiful process.
NFS: I noticed moments in the film where someone would be in the middle of saying something really juicy and the camera was on the other side of the room and then you would arrive there, intuitively.
Monnerat: And that’s what we really love about those moments, too. It’s unexpected in a film. Also, when someone is acting out, what are the other people in the room doing? That, to me, is very interesting. If there was something that I absolutely felt necessary for Teddy to be filming, I would just give him a look.
NFS: How long did it take to cut once you got everything translated?
Collatos: It was about six months to do the rough cut and then about three months to do the fine cut…
Monnerat: And it’s just Teddy for the first six months doing everything himself.
Collatos: A full-time job...
Monnerat: You had at least three cuts, right?
Collatos: There are multiple versions of the film. The styling of the film evolved. The first cut that I showed my closest friends wasn’t much longer [than the final cut], but the style became something totally different from cut to cut.
NFS: What other styles did you experiment with?
Collatos: I mean, I was just gushing in the beginning. I would be cutting and tearing up, laughing, and giving up, taking breaks, going back, being frustrated, then angry, then happy. The first cut was more languid and less “narrative” even though it’s a documentary and it’s not a narrative, but it was true to my psychological experience of what we went through literally. The first edit was our process of discovery, but then we realized the viewers didn’t care about that. They just want to get to the point, like, set me up, show me where to go, tell me what to do.
"Ultimately, documentaries now are, generally speaking, propaganda for a certain agenda, whatever that agenda might be."
NFS: I would love to see the first version. Do you identify with the term “cinema verite”?
Monnerat: One hundred percent: direct cinema.
Collatos: My heroes in life are The Drew Associates. I think they’re the most powerful thing, I mean I don’t want to say ever to happen in cinema, but in my opinion, the last powerful thing to happen in cinema.
Monnerat: Even when we were talking to Luana and the girls, we explained to them what cinema verite is. And it was really beautiful to see them learn a new style of filming, and to them, it was like, "Oh, Big Brother' (the TV show). Like a fly on the wall."
Collatos: That's actually why Luana allowed such exclusive access, because we told her that we, the filmmakers, have no idea what the film is going to be. She was like, “What's the film going to be?” And we were like, “We have no idea. Who are we to say what the film is,” and her response was classic dramatic Luana, Shakespeare’s line: “To be, or not to be.”
NFS: [laughs] What?
Collatos: It’s just like, it is, or it isn’t.
NFS: Oh, I see.
Collatos: That’s why we got the access, because of that concept.
NFS. So she related to the existential bent that you guys had.
Collatos: Well, it’s just mind-blowing to not approach a documentary as a narrative.
Monnerat: We’re not going in there with lights and doing interviews. We’re like: it’s just two people and we’re just living with you and we’re not asking you any questions.
NFS: And then people were willing to share their stories with you.
Monnerat: At the beginning of the second day they were like, “What took you so long to come back?” There was trust. Because it doesn’t feel like a transactional experience. It is a human experience.
NFS: Did you feel like you had a choice in that regard? Did you feel you could even do the film if you took a more pointed approach?
Monnerat: We wouldn’t want to do that.
Collatos: Even when we’re talking right now, and I get a strong sense of who you are, and I’m not asking who your mother is. Questions like that garner a response. Who has the right of telling someone else’s story? If you bring honesty and show honesty, then honesty will be represented throughout the film and until the end of the story.
NFS: What I’m saying is, if two filmmakers came along that wanted to do it a different way, I’m not sure that would’ve even worked.
Monnerat: Oh yeah. She wouldn’t have accepted them.
Collatos: She would’ve thrown them out. She threw Vice News out.
NFS: How do you feel about where cinema verite is at, in general?
Collatos: Ultimately, documentaries now are, generally speaking, propaganda for a certain agenda, whatever that agenda might be.
Monnerat: Or it needs to conform to the terms of the social media world. You have to have music, every certain [number] of minutes something needs to happen. And it just feels all the same and I don’t know what we are learning in society, as people, when we’re just conforming to a very plastic way of being given information. But again, we are big fans of direct cinema. When Kanopy announced they would unavailable to NYC, we were like, “Okay, we have to watch every Frederick Wiseman film.” We spent a whole weekend on the couch. The films are that meaningful and it’s needed. And I wonder about this new generation; it doesn't have as much access to the cultural dialogue between people. Everything’s isolated. It’s missing what effects it has on their growth and their experience of being.
"The way that I think about it is: you study film, you use tools, and you’re the contemporary version of being aesthetically influenced by a previous movement. We give that to narrative filmmakers, but documentary is somehow not up to speed with that concept."
NFS: In some sense, what cinema verite is is “we’re filming real life or reality and there’s no intrusion.” That’s still being practiced, but in bite-sized pieces. People make Instagram stories.
Collatos: But they're generally facing towards themselves or their story.
NFS: I’m with you on that. But I’m curious about the next generation and how they’ll view this type of filmmaking.
Monnerat: Showing at a festival like Sheffield, which is such a hub for all the documentary people from Europe, especially England...we had an overwhelming, incredible, positive response and attendance—people searching us, running through the streets to talk to us. These are, the majority of them, younger professionals [from] the BBC and other networks, and they were so inspired. I think there could be a renaissance of cinema verite. And I think that we’re all very overstimulated with social media and that is dictating a lot. There is a transition to everything, right? I’m interested to see what social media for the next five years will look like, how that will impact how we document stories.
Collatos: I also want to say, I don’t consider [our film] cinema verite. Think of it this way. Taxi Driver is not French New Wave, but it was inspired by French New Wave. I don’t think you can call it cinema verite now. Cinema verite is a thing that’s in a time capsule that inspires. And of course we’re influenced by it. But we exist now.
NFS: So you essentially think the movement is over and you guys are part of a generation influenced by it.
Collatos: The way that I think about it is: you study film, you use tools, and you’re the contemporary version of being aesthetically influenced by a previous movement. We give that to narrative filmmakers, but documentary is somehow not up to speed with that concept. There are fake verite documentaries, right? For instance, Man Bites Dog has a verite aesthetic. It’s used as a word that informs narrative, rather than documentary.
NFS: It’s a style and it’s not necessarily en vogue for documentaries, but it still gets practiced. I saw this movie about Steve Bannon. It’s very neutral and was made by a liberal filmmaker: The Brink. It’s made in a verite way. There are interviews but it’s essentially just hanging out with Steve Bannon and sitting in on meetings with global leaders of his movement.
Collatos: The reason why the Maysles brothers are a household name is that they film famous people. So, that gives the films marketability. If you film a famous person, you can get away with a pure verite approach because the subject is bigger than the film, but verite of real people living life, unless it’s overtly dramatic, is less celebrated or acceptable.
NFS: Your approach toward filmmaking is much more anthropological or ethnographic.
Collatos: I mean that’s what we live every day. For instance, this conversation right now, over the computer, not even seeing you...
NFS: What do you mean by that?
Collatos: This didn’t exist however many years ago, this is an ethnographic...
NFS: Right. Everything you create is a time capsule of where you’re at.
Collatos: And, hopefully, the moment.
NFS: What was the experience like personally, living with these people? How do you feel about it?
Monnerat: An honor. It was so exciting…
Collatos: It was exhilarating and exhausting.
Monnerat: It was all the emotions that you can have. At times we were afraid, then, of circumstances, of places that we were filming and...it was incredible. To this day we are still connected with the girls and we talk to them.
Collatos: And then Luana passed away five months after we finished filming, so if we didn’t do it then, it never would’ve been.
Monnerat: We still have one message from her that we haven’t heard. I still haven’t felt ready to listen because it’s that emotional. We really bonded and were really close. Yeah, it’s like they’re family.