Sex and the City of God

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he title character of Madame Sata would send even the most artful mystical realist scrambling for the LSD. Born to black slave parents in early-1900s Rio de Janeiro, Francisco became a drag performer, petty criminal, Brazilian martial-arts master, husband to a prostitute, father to seven adopted children, and stage superstar.
    What’s doubly disconcerting: Francisco was a real person. Sata, the second film by Brazilian director Karim Ainouz, is his story, and it rushes by in such a whirl of color, music, violence and man-on-man action that traditional biopic boredom never enters the picture. John Cameron Mitchell, friend of Nerve and director of the drag-rock opera Hedwig and the Angry Inch, took a break from shooting his next movie, The Sex Film Project, to interview Ainouz before the film’s New York premiere. — Michael Martin

John Cameron Mitchell: It’s very exciting for me to see this film in New York, not too long after actually visiting Rio.
Karim Ainouz: It was just a few months later, right?


Yeah, I was dragged there. Um, I wasn’t dragged there: I was in the Sundance filmmakers program. They wanted to take us to hear chorino, which is an early kind of Brazilian music. It came over from Portugal and the new cultures jammed together really fast, so it has this strange feeling — really fast, but really emotional. That’s what your film feels like. Sad and fast.
[laughs] That’s a great description of it, actually. It has this kind of first-degree happiness, but it’s really not.

Tell me how you became interested in the character of Joao Francisco.
I found out about him in the mid-’80s. There was a punk club in Sao Paulo called Madame Sata that I used to go to a lot. That name that was in my mind for years, and then a friend of mine told me about Juan and gave me his biography. As time went on, I found out that he was a legend in Rio. To some people, he was this flamboyant queen; for other people, he was a big fighter. There was always this kind of dichotomy between being outspokenly gay and being masculine. In the late sixties, an interesting thing happened to him. At that time, the dictatorship was at its height. There was this little leftist newspaper with a sense of humor, and at one point, they elected some icons of counterculture to speak against dictatorship. They interviewed him, this huge interview came out, and then he was all over TV in the early ’70s. His book, The Memoirs of Madame Sata, was published in 1972. It’s his life story, as he recited it to a journalist. So at first, he was an underground legend, then he became a crossover legend.

Was he known more to the cultural elite?
He was a popular cult figure.

Whom would you compare him to from the States? Josephine Baker in the ’20s?
Maybe some figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

Right. He was almost like Divine, if Divine were a martial arts specialist.
In the Harlem Renaissance.

And black.

Was he known specifically as one of the great masters of capoiera? Or was he just a drag queen who could kick your ass?
No, no. He was one of the great fighters. He was one of the masters of capoeira of those times. But it’s a very ambiguous kind of martial art.

The traditions came from Africa, but they had to be hidden.
Throughout the period of slavery, it could not be practiced as a fight. It had to pass as a dance. That’s why, when people practice, there’s a song playing in the background.

And whenever Joao fights in the movie, there’s some music playing. I love that. Excuse me while I turn on the record player and kick your ass.
Yeah, yeah, exactly, that’s exactly what it was.

That’s what’s so fascinating to me about the character, this nexus between art and violence. His art came out of the drag/chanteuse circle, and that intersected with this freed slave fighter who became a dancer.
At the end of the day, the body is the last resort. But to him, it’s the first resort also. It’s a place of creation and imagination, and of exercising imagination in terms of voice and the way he dresses. But at the same time, it’s also a tool for defense.

His love affairs in the film feel like life-or-death situations.
They do. It’s funny, talking about that one. I was doing research about Joao, and at one point, a friend told me, “Oh, there’s a Santaria priest who lives very close to your mother’s house. Why don’t you go to him?” I went to visit him, and it just so happened that he was one of Joao’s ex-lovers. A completely absurd story.

How old was he?
He’s probably eighty-something now; at the time, he was in his late seventies. He was a Navy guy in the ’40s, and then he became a Santaria priest. But he was one of the people I could talk with about Joao’s intimacy. This guy was very violent, but he was really romantic. He would describe to me how they would have sex, but what he really loved was to have a hand on his chest, caressing him, lulling him to sleep.

The Santaria priest.
And then, the next morning as he left, he would very discreetly put some money in his suit. Not to pay for sex, but almost out of fatherly love. I wanted to reconstruct that relationship, which was always ambiguous.

How did you find the actor Lazaro to play Joao? He was incredible.
He was not a completely unexperienced actor, but he didn’t do capoeira very well, and in his contract, he would not agree to explicit sex scenes. For me, it was a bit of a nightmare: I needed to work with somebody who could go anyplace I wanted him to go, you know? But at first he wouldn’t do those scenes.

And what happened when he finally did?
Well, for every scene that he did, he had to sign a release form. Then, two weeks down the line, it was fine.

There was trust. Shooting the most intense sex scene — how did that go?
We rehearsed how he would act with the two characters he had sex with in the film, but I didn’t want to go all the way. I wanted to —

Keep it loose —
And a little prudish. I wanted them to be comfortable with each other’s bodies but to be surprised. I reserved the last days of shooting for those scenes.

And that last day is often a very emotional day for the actors. For everyone. So, if you’re going to shoot your wad, it’s a good day to do it. So to speak.
[laughs] Yeah, it was perfect. It really worked out, and everyone was really moved by it. Those scenes were like more of a threesome.

There were three straight men.
No, there was one gay man. He, I think, felt the least comfortable of all of them.

Isn’t that funny. It’s often safer to go furthest from yourself in order to show more. That’s how I felt with Hedwig, you know. I had to be as different a person as possible so I could tell something about myself.
Yeah. It’s interesting, you know, because Lazaro led the scene more than the other characters. At the beginning, Philipe was quite shaken by it.

The other actor who was openly gay.
And the director of photography, who was a fifty-five-year-old straight man, was kind of crying after the scene. It was very sweet, how he was open to that.

Yeah, it’s interesting, my director of photography for the film I’m doing next, the sex film, is a straight man. We worked on Hedwig together. I was a little nervous. I said, I just wanted to make sure this is not gonna freak you out or something. And he said, Oh, you know, I grew up in the ’70s, and I remember going to some film festival in Baltimore… He went to a gay film festival, and he saw an erotic film. Lovers having sex. And it probably would have been called porn, but it was shot somewhat artistically, and it was the ’70s. He was kind of amazed, because he’d never seen that before: what two similar bodies could do together. You always think that bodies have to be complementary — you know, traditional heterosexual terms. He was excited to revisit that, to shoot sex in a non-pornographic way.
I think one thing that’s important to talk about is, how do you document intimacy? What’s the borderline between staging intimacy and documenting intimacy? And how do you do that with a 35mm camera in your hands. For the DP, there was this issue of, “How did I get him?.” That’s why I joke and say it was a threesome. As a DP, you go into that, and you kind of break that fourth wall. You lick the characters with the lens. It’s really, it’s really tough.

I think the threesome is a good metaphor: the other actors have to remember there’s another lover in the room. It’s not about ignoring the camera necessarily. Wth men, a perfect threesome is very difficult to attain.

I mean, I’ve only had flashes of it really working, a couple of times in my life. I haven’t had that many threesomes. It seems that they work best among three people who don’t know each other but are equally attracted to each other. Or with a very comfortable couple who are doing it because they want to and know their intimacy can be shared.
The purpose of a threesome, in its essence, is to have as much fun all the way. It’s like a triangle, which is a dynamic form. When it’s a couple, I actually have a hard time. No matter how much they share the intimacy, it’s still an entity.

It’s very delicate. We shot a threesome recently in our sex film workshop. As the viewer, I was the fourth wheel. But, I actually found the foursome easier. It’s an even number.
There’s a point of support in a foursome, a point of reference: the couple’s situation. But in a threesome, if you lose that, it’s not a threesome anymore.

How has the film been received in Brazil?
Very well, actually. When it was first shown to the press at Cannes, the reviews centered on the torrid homoerotic scenes. I thought, "Oh God, is it going to be only about this? There’s a larger picture here." And then, when the film was released, I had a big surprise: the sex was discussed, but it wasn’t the centerpiece of the reading of the film.

In terms of the public, there are always people who leave the screening room, but very few. At one point I was like, "This is so depressing," but then I thought, "It’s the real world out there. I’m glad that they came to the theatre to begin with." We definitely had a bigger crossover than I thought.

What is the movie, Madame Satan, that Joao revered, the Cecil B. Demille film?
It’s a very tacky cross between Metropolis and Titanic. It’s a film about this woman who’s married and is being betrayed by her husband. She promotes this big carnival ball that’s held in a zeppelin. There are a lot of musical numbers and people in costumes. It’s from 1930.

A zeppelin like the Hindenburg?
Yes. There’s an accident in the middle of the carnival ball, and they all have to jump from the air in evening gowns. You can’t believe the costumes in that film. Who did it? Adam something. He was a big costume designer, they had a show of him last year at MOMA I think. Adrian something.

Oh, just Adrian, I think.
Yes, that’s it.

“Gowns by Adrian.”
I think there’s this classic scene where . . .

Adrian Dimdinopjska!
Yes, that’s him. He, I think, was mesmerized by this scene where she’s dressed in a kind of devil costume, singing an aria in a very camp way. I think that image kind of stuck to him. There were supposed to be bits of that film in my film, but then we didn’t get the rights.

When did Joao die?

What age?
Seventy-six. He was born in 1900.

Did people who knew him say that he was a magnetic figure in person?
He liked to describe himself as six-and-something feet tall, huge, muscular, but when people describe him to me and I see pictures of him, there’s this feeling of, “You know, it’s just a performance, a persona.” He seemed larger than he was. Every time he walked into a fancy ball, for example, people thought he was really tall and swift. And he was actually not that tall and not that big. There was something about him that was larger.

The actor himself didn’t seem that large. He had this very powerful femininity that, you know, if you first met him you might think, “Oh, he’s a fag.” But he made it clear that he wouldn’t be trifled with. There was a great balance. You know, if it was an American film they would have cast some completely butch guy, and people would say, “Isn’t great that gay men can be played so masculinely,” and it’s like, please. I mean, everyone has a little bit of feminine and masculine in them, and isn’t it more interesting to have someone who obviously has a feminine side who is . . .
So much more surprising and interesting and layered. That’s exactly what I was trying to do. That’s why Lazaro worked so well for this part. He does, “What is a man, anyway?” you know? Something quite fluid there.

It’s funny how Brazilian film right now in America is only represented by City of God in the last couple of years. I mean I understand, just having been in Brazil, how hard it is to make a film there.
Yeah. There are a lot of new, young authors coming out of Argentina with a really fresh look at daily life and reality. And it’s completely different than fantastic realism, which has been the expected representation of Latin America for the last few years. In Brazilian cinema, there are those things like City of God and Carmenjito and those kind of big films which want to have a big audience. And then there’s another batch of films which are smaller but really different. In Argentina, there is an overall feeling of a movement, a renaissance.

Economically, I’m sure, that must be more difficult, but it fosters a movement.
Argentina is the first country in the world that has a number of film students with a sense of community.

A friend of ours, Alysio Abranchez, another filmmaker, took me up to one of the hillside squatter slums, the favelas. We visited a guy who was doing a radio show up there, and it was pretty amazing. The favelas are pretty much controlled by the drug gangs. All these little kids were following us around, one little kid had a foot blown off, and all around us firecrackers were being set off during the day to signal that merchandise was there or the cops were coming or whatever. And it was incredibly moving. The DJ was just shouting out on his radio signal about the pain that was in him and his empathy for these kids and to keep moving into the light. He was really trying to express to me, someone he didn’t know, what was going on for these kids. It’s just such a delicate balance in Brazil right now with poverty, everything’s just kind of on the edge of . . .
It’s like apartheid, you know? Let’s just say it out loud. I was talking about this, I was doing a Q&A two weeks ago about the film, and this woman, a very interesting woman, said, “It seems to me that there is pressure on Brazilian films to talk about violence.” I said, “There are different ways of talking about violence, and different reasons to do so, but there’s one thing about Brazil that we cannot forget: it is ultimately a really violent country.” I think Brazil’s the second or third country with the highest discrepancy between incomes. There are very few people that earn a lot of money, and many people earn almost nothing. That is violent by definition. So how do you represent that — that’s another issue — and how do you go about it in a redemptive way? There are a million ways to look at violence, but it’s ultimately a tricky situation in that country.

Some people like to say, “There’s a civil war going on in Brazil,” and I say, “I wish there were a civil war going on in Brazil, because there would be two sides fighting.” War implies friction. Right now, there’s just a self-destructive kind of wave there. And I think that’s what City of God talks about. Those people are just killing each other. Instead of killing those who are killing them, they’re just killing each other.

The place I visited was one of the richest parts of Rio. And Alysio said that one year, everyone came down from the favela and just kind of swept through the beaches, slowly, like a wave. People started running, they were basically just being robbed, but slowly. Like . . .
Like a fishnet.

And he said it was so surreal and terrifying. Rich people were just grabbing their beach chairs and running away from this slow-moving wave that had come to rob them. It was like a release of pressure. You know, I was actually robbed. On the beach.
[laughing] I was kidnapped, you were robbed.

You were kidnapped?
I was kidnapped for a little bit, like four or five hours.

What happened?
I was leaving the office one day with my editor. We had been editing a film. These two guys just put us in her car, and they took us around the city with guns to our head. Just to get money out of the ATM machines. But they were actually quite cool. I mean, they could have killed us.

They were just calmly getting the money.
And they let us leave with the car afterward.

Did they get a good amount?
No, that’s the problem. That’s why I was a bit afraid: it was after 10:00. There are so many kidnappings in Brazil after ten o’clock, but you can only take out $100 from the ATM machines. So I told these guys, “Look, you’re not going to get much money.” I had one card, she had two. They said, “That’s all right. We’re just going to have to kidnap a few more people tonight.” [laughs]

There’s a strange balance of . . .
What’s surreal to me is that it doesn’t happen every day. I mean, it should happen every day. It’s amazing how social conscience is kept. That’s what I think is really strange in that country. But I think that now, there is also a new sense of hope. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but it will last a bit with this new president. I think that there is a sense of hope and a sense of self-esteem, which is really key. It’s the first time that the Brazilian people have elected somebody who comes from a poor, working-class background. I don’t care if he doesn’t do anything — something cultural happened at that moment, which I think is really important. Now, things are really tenuous and dangerous and violent.

But it’s also an incredibly intoxicating place to visit. It’s just so full of wonder and love. Maybe that’s why the film seems really resonant to me as somebody who doesn’t know the country very well. It is full of blossoms of beauty, violence, love, sex, music. The feeling you get from the film is that sex, like everything else in life, can be tainted or enhanced by your experience. But it’s not ignored or shunted aside as often as it is in English-speaking countries, where there’s a great deal of fear of it. That, to me, is very resilient.
It is. When I talk about this violence, when I say it’s amazing how this country goes along — well, I mean, there’s a passion for life there. Despite everything, we’re going to go on. And there’s an understanding of sex, which I think is really key, you know? Sex is not a guilty act. Sex is a celebration of life.  

© 2003 John Cameron Mitchell and Nerve.com.