Lilla Puskás Reviews Three Films Tackling Transgender Representation
Lilla Puskás was selected to attend the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival’s Talent Press Workshop. Being “Body Politics” was the focus of the festival’s Panorama section, Lilla chose as her main assignment to compare transgender representation through the protagonists of three movies featured in this section. Here, Lilla shares her reflections of how these films tackle the complexity, diversity, and fluidity of transgender identity.
Enormous nail extensions, thick layers of powder, and artificial eyelashes appear on the silver screen. These are the accessories, not of a cis woman, but of a Brazilian transvestite star who defines herself through her appearance. The identities and the desires of she and other trans protagonists are at the center of three related narratives: Marilyn, Obscuro Barroco, and Tranny Fag (Bixa Travesty). These Berlinale Panorama films represent the transgender body from different perspectives. The latter two got honored with TEDDY Awards, the festival’s official queer prizes.
Trans body as a prison
According to a popular view on the subject matter, trans gendered people are trapped in the wrong body. Marilyn, Martín Rodríguez Redondo’s coming-of-age drama, resonates with this idea. Marcos (Walter Rodríguez) is an insecure teenager who lives with his family on a farm and helps out around the house. He is frequently laughed at by peers, and he also gets criticized by his parents too. In one scene, his father (Germán de Silva) and neighbors give him a test; he is supposed to demonstrate his power (in very gendered terms) by shooting an animal. Ultimately, he fails to live up to the role of the strong paternal protector. Marcos does not fit in this environment, and he sometimes withdraws into his room to be alone. When nobody is watching, he tries on a few of his mother’s skirts and blouses, in order to feel more comfortable in his skin.
The moment of the hero’s first transformation in front of a mirror is a common trope in trans movies; we also see this scene in Marilyn. Marcos uses make-up, and when he catches a glimpse of himself as a woman, he seems relieved. In a later carnival scene, he appears cross-dressed in public but his face is covered with a mask. He enjoys his anonymity and dances cheerfully and light-heartedly. But his joy lasts only a moment, until his mother (Catalina Saavedra) reveals his secret.
In a powerful scene, Marcos watches her go through his room, taking jewelry and female dresses away from him and setting everything on fire, one after the other. Surprisingly, this atrocity discourages Marcos so deeply that he does not try cross-dressing anymore. Marilyn is just one of many recent Latin-American movies that have depicted the phobia, hatred and violence against trans people. Take, for example, Colombian Rubén Mendoza’s documentary, Miss María, Skirting The Mountain (2017), or Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman (2017), the winner of the 2018 Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film.
Trans body as a piece of art
In Obscuro Barroco, Evangelia Kranioti’s essayistic documentary, the body of Brazilian transvestite icon Luana Muniz is represented as a piece of art, exhibited on the streets of Rio during Carnival. The Greek director focuses on Rio’s underground trans subculture and also includes Muniz both as heroine and narrator. In some of the scenes, Muniz appears as a kind of goddess who observes her beloved city at night from a distant symbolic space, standing on a kind of floating balcony. Her face is visible in close-ups and the strong light emphasizes her wig and extreme heavy make-up that looks like paint on a canvas. The protagonist proudly states that with these accessories, she is able to turn into whatever she wants.
Parallel to her metamorphosis, the city also undergoes a transformation and the carnival begins. Muniz compares the city to herself, saying, “If Rio were a person, it would be a transvestite.” Kranioti depicts the carnival with dream-like, hypnotic images, sometimes in the style of French avant-garde cinema. Her camera lingers on the details of silver-golden-blue costumes, shells, glitter and mirrors, shining neon UV paint on dark-skinned bodies.
Later in the movie there is another, more political approach to the transgender body. Loud and powerful samba music conducts the viewer from the carnival to a vivid street demonstration. We see trans activists marching and demanding their right over their own body. They also have to fight to have their identities accepted. Kranioti included into the movie her recordings about the anti-government protests in 2016, the year of the Rio Olympic Games.
Trans body as a weapon
In Latin-American cinema, adding trans gendered characters to the narrative is often considered as a political attitude, a statement against machismo. As scholar Gustavo Subero writes in a 2008 article, “travestitic tendencies prove the failure of the patriarchal system embedded in the figure of the macho”. This is also the case in Claudia Priscilla and Kiko Goifman’s Tranny Fag, a provocative political manifesto in opposition to all kinds of social inequalities.
This documentary follows a black trans woman, Brazilian spoken-word artist Linn da Quebrada. She comes from a favela in São Paulo and tells about her past, when she could only be a woman at night. According to her comments, on the street she frequently faced malice. In one of her monologues she recalls how she created her female identity as a teenager and renamed herself over and over again, until she found the persona that best fit. This is the way “Linn” was born. Today, with her performances, radio shows and video works, she stands up against the white hetero-normative gender order, sexism, and machismo.
Tranny Fag portrays her as strong and self-confident thanks to the concept she developed for herself. That is, she does not aim at changing her gender but describes herself as male and female at the same time. She considers her body and her music as a gun, tools to fight chauvinism and expectations of women. In addition to the political approach, she also tells about the most difficult period of her life, when she lost control over her body because she was in hospital fighting cancer. The film also contains video works and photo documentation of performances she made with her friend in the hospital. These explore, in part, learning about the body through illness.
Tranny Fag depicts Linn in a similar way as João Francisco dos Santo in the biopic entitled Madame Satã, the movie that was a breakthrough for Latin-American queer cinema in 2002. Karim Aïnouz tells the story of a popular drag queen from Rio de Janeiro in the 30s, and the way the acclaimed cross dresser created a persona that did not fit into gender boxes. In this film, João (Lázaro Ramos) appears on screen wearing a pearl necklace, boudoir cap and make-up, but at the same time emphasises his masculine body shape with costumes.
Like Madame Sata the heroines in these three movies do not feel accepted by their surroundings, since they cannot or do not want to meet the expectations of others. For them, make-up is not only a disguise but also a possibility to reframe their bodies and rebuild their relationship to them. In creating new identities they find a safer environment for themselves.
 Subero, Gustavo (2008) Fear of the Trannies: On Filmic Phobia of Transvestism in the New Latin American Cinema, in: Latin American Research Review January 2008