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Review: ‘Favela Gay’ Is Not Quite Brazil’s Version of ‘Paris Is Burning,’ But Is Still Worth Seeing

Review: 'Favela Gay' Is Not Quite Brazil's Version of 'Paris Is Burning,' But Is Still Worth Seeing

I first learned about the documentary “Favela Gay” when one of the main protagonists, Luiz Antônio Moura, was murdered in December in his community of Complexo Alemão. To me, his murder showed how dangerous it was to be gay or transgender in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. It also proved LGBTQ people need to tell their own stories. Without the film, it is unlikely that anyone outside of Complexo Alemão would have known that the Residents Association leader, was a proud gay man.

Then there’s the film’s title— “Favela Gay.” It’s so simple, yet so provocative. Favelas are typically inaccessible for middle class people who live in the asfalto (literally the concrete pavement as opposed to a favela hill).  So a film called “Favela Gay” made me feel like I was going to see something that is inaccessible, something that has never been told. 

I searched all over Youtube and scoured the Internet for alerts on when this movie would come out in the United States. I couldn’t find anything. But thank god I live in Rio de Janeiro. 

Before I watched this unreleased film at Encontro de Cinema Negro Brasil África & Caribe film festival in Rio de Janeiro, I anticipated that it would be Brazil’s version of “Paris is Burning,” the classic documentary about Harlem’s gay ball scene in mid to late 80s. 

“Paris is Burning” set a high bar for any documentary about inner-city LGBTQ people. And “Favela Gay,” set in Rio de Janeiro, doesn’t fair too well. 

I enjoyed filmmaker Rodrigo Fehla’s “Favela Gay” because it gave gay and transgender people the chance to tell their own stories of coming out, dealing with violence, and just plain living. But the documentary’s lack of a story arc and creativity in cinematography made the film feel repetitive, and at times even boring. 

The documentary is organized into eight favelas. Within each favela, Fehla chose a character to tell their story of being gay or transgender in their community. Although there is only one lesbian couple, the rest of the characters are quite diverse in gender identity and professions: among them are two transgender women, a cross-dressing man, a travesti (in South America, a person who was designated male at birth who has a feminine, transfeminine or femme gender identity) prostitute, a famous carnival dancer, two community activists—even a young man who used to be transgender but transitioned back.

The first person to tell their story is Martinha, a red headed transgender woman who is a hairdresser in the Rocinha favela. Her dialogue deftly explains the difference between a transsexual woman, travesti, and gay man, which, for me as a journalist who writes about these issues, is even difficult. Martinha calls herself a transsexual because she considers herself more feminine than travestis (typically transgender women who don’t undergo a sex change and often work as prostitutes) and she says that it doesn’t matter whether she had a sex change.

It was during her portrait that I began to notice that the b-roll (footage that covers the interviews) consisted of the character walking through the favela and nothing more. I also noticed that, besides being a fuzzy backdrop for the character interviews, the favela didn’t become it’s own character. It was treated just like a background. Although the people came from eight very different favelas, I doubt people from outside of Rio de Janeiro will perceive any difference between any of the neighborhoods. There was a missed opportunity to even geographically explain the differences between these favelas. I also don’t think anyone would even understand how people live and survive in favelas after seeing this documentary. 

My biggest disappointment with the film is that there is no story arc anywhere. The best documentaries draw you into specific stories that weave through interviews and footage. You either have to be lucky or be really patient (like “Hoop Dreams”) to get a good story. And if there’s no story arc, the footage better be amazing. This documentary has neither. I saw footage of an LGBT pride parade, but I don’t know how the residents managed to pull it off. I would have loved for “Favela Gay” to follow the organizers of the event as they mount a pride parade that is separate from the main parade in Copacabana. Or, what if director Fehla had chosen to focus on one person like Luiz Antônio Moura, the murdered gay man who led a residents association in one of the most violent favelas in Rio de Janeiro? I’m sure if they had just hung out with him for six months, they would have found a good story. 

Despite my disappointment with this film, I still think that it should be seen by as many people as possible. That’s why I’m hoping the documentary finds distribution in the United States and in Brazil. But, unfortunately, the international social impact of this documentary will be limited.

Kiratiana Freelon is an author and travel expert living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Follow on twitter: @kiratiana

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