Updated: Sep 2, 2020
Queen of Lapa opens in a hallway bathed in a red hue, as a scantily clad older women nonchalantly smokes during a late-night photo shoot. This is Luana Muniz, a sex worker and activist who is also the subject of Theodore Collatos and Carolina Monnerat’s documentary centred around the lives of transgender prostitutes working in the Lapa district of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The film is a revealing, poignant and melancholic journey into the safe haven that is the Muniz Hotel.
Luana Muniz is the titular Queen of Lapa and takes centre stage for much of the film. The larger than life figure has a eventful history that she delves into sporadically throughout. The documentary paints Muniz as an incredibly driven individual, despite her tragic past, and the filmmakers’ laid-back approach allows her to fully express her flamboyant personality.
Muniz relishes the spotlight while also taking pride in acting as a maternal figure to the girls staying with her. Collatos and Monnerat present a balanced view of Muniz and don’t shy away from the fact that she may be prone to exaggeration, as those around her occasionally contradict her stories and accounts of activism. Trustworthy or not, the film simply wouldn’t be as entertaining to watch were it not for Muniz’s magnetic presence, as she’s as enigmatic a figure as she is fascinating.
Despite having such a captivating central figure, Queen of Lapa spends a lot of time with the residents of the Muniz Hotel. Rather than taking a backseat approach, Collatos and Monnerat talk directly with the girls as they discuss everything from their hopes and aspirations to harrowing encounters while on the job. The flippant way in which these workers discuss their desperate past experiences gives you an idea of just how hardened they’ve had to become.
During these darker conversations, the viewer comes to realise the tragic reality of the lives they’re observing. Although the sex workers have, ultimately, chosen the lifestyle they’re leading, there’s an undeniable sadness to seeing them in, what many would consider to be, a bleak situation. The comfort the girls get from Muniz herself, as well as their clear affection for one another, is often undercut by the harsh realities and dangers of their line of work.
Collatos and Monnerat take a non-intrusive shooting approach, so it feels as if we’re getting a genuine picture of day to day life at the hotel. While most of the footage involves people talking to the documentarians, there are several fly-on-the-wall moments in which we see the girls interacting with each other outside of work. It’s in these scenes that we get a glimpse into some of the chaotic relationships between the residents, most of whom have loud, outgoing personalities.
While the documentary could be seen as meandering at points, the relatively short runtime means that there are never any pacing issues or moments of dullness. The quieter scenes instead come as a break from the girls’ normal high-pressure lives. These moments offer some time to reflect on the tales we’ve been told and to take in the harsh world that the documentary is exploring.
With Queen of Lapa, Collatos and Monnerat have delivered a documentary that shines a light on an area of life that many will be unaware of. The humanistic approach focuses on the individuals rather than their line of work, which makes for an engaging and empathetic film. Muniz is the star in every sense with her extravagant personality being fascinating to observe. What’s most endearing, though, is the strength of her character, as well as that of those around her.