Let’s make it clear: Leandra Leal’s Divine Divas packs one hell of a punch. I was transfixed from the impressive first shot, where a drag queen’s aged and beautiful face is made kaleidoscopic by the swirling theater lights and the sparkling glitter on her face, all set to the sounds of Streisand’s “It Had To Be You,” all the way until the final credits rolled. It’s an absolutely captivating work that’s already been one of the true gems uncovered in my #VanyaSXSW so far.
Part personal history, part cultural exploration and preservation, and part musical revue, Divine Divas is about some of Brazil’s most famous drag performers (transvestas, as they’re called by the Brazilian press) putting on a show in celebration of their 50-year careers.
Some were famous the world over (several make reference to their performances in New York, Paris and Germany in the ‘70s and ‘80s), while others were beloved by the people back home. They took the role of, as one performer (Rogeria, the most famous nationally) puts it, “the country’s favorite transvestite aunt.” All are fascinating subjects, from Marquesa, who shocked the whole country by participating in Rio’s first gay wedding in 1962 (keep in mind that Brazil was run by a military dictatorship at that point), to Camille K, a former high society hairdresser who fell in love with an artist and decided to become like her. Most have flourished in spite of cultural prejudice and repression (almost all either have to keep their work separate from their extended families in order to maintain relationships with them, or have no family at all that they speak to), though they make painfully clear that it wasn’t easy — one of the doc’s most moving moments comes after a performance from Jane Di Castro, where she brings her husband on stage, and weeps openly at both his devotion and the fact that their 46-year-old partnership wasn’t even recognized by the state until last year.
Leal herself has a deep personal connection to this world: Her grandfather, who ran Rio’s Rival Theatre in the 1960s and ’70s, was among the first theater owners to allow drag performers on their stages. She grew up around these women and men, becoming an actress in her own right, and it’s obvious they shaped her life in a multitude of ways. Leal’s filmmaking reminds me a hell of a lot of Sarah Polley’s forays into documentary, given how she distances herself from what’s, for her, a hyper-personal subject. Aside from a few bits of anecdotal narration strewn about the course of the movie’s hour and fifty minutes, she really focuses in depth on the lives of the these wonderful performers, whereas a lesser actress/director might have tried to rival them for screen time (hey Morgan Spurlock, what’s up?).
Her interviews with these men and women are evocative of Errol Morris’ confessional stye, but, whereas Morris’ thrives when his subject and him are alone, Leal’s is made unique by the addition of the group setting, which brings a delightful backstage candor between each performer to the mix. Not to mention that the cinematography during each performance is lush and gorgeous in the classical sense, and outside of a few flubbed and weird transitions from infographic to raw footage near the end of the film, it’s brilliantly edited. The soundtrack’s a blast, especially if you like your showtunes belted in the classical diva fashion, full of vigor and passion, underlined by banana-based puns and rhinestones. When the movie’s fun, it’s a lot of fun, for the most part.
Near the film’s end, Leal draws parallels between the social repression from which the divas emerged back in the 1960s to today’s Brazil, which is currently undergoing an economic crisis that has people wanting to revert back to the more conservative ways of old, and it’s not unfair for her to wonder if that similar repression might stunt some of the progress that they’ve made over the past 50 years. However, by simply preserving the stories of these courageous men and women, she’s done a real service to those who’ll come after, the next generation of queer artists looking to mine from the past and discover their forebears, and for the people the world over who hadn’t heard of these sensational performers prior to watching this documentary. Divine Divas is a truly accomplished work of documentary filmmaking, and it’ll be a pleasure to see what Leandra Leal goes on to do next.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus and use #VanyaSXSW for all Vanyaland’s ongoing coverage at South-By-Southwest 2017.