Basta um Dia / Living Day by Day:
Articles and Film Reviews


Terror and the Romance of Everyday Life:
Vagner de Almeida’s lives of the Travesti

Vagner de Almeida’s film “Basta um Dia (Living Day by Day)” (2006) is the third in a series of four documentaries about the lives of poor travestis (transgendered persons) living in or close to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  Each of the films in the series focuses on a different issue in the lives of its subjects, with the first—“Ritos e Ditos de Jovens Gays” (2002)—and final (in production at the time of writing) films addressing the experiences of young and old travesti respectively.  The middle two films—“Borboletas da Vida (the Butterflies)” (2004) and “Basta um Dia”—are about the vicissitudes of adulthood for travesti living in the Fluminense Valley.  While “Borboletas da Vida” evokes, as its title suggests, the hopes and dreams described by the young travesty interviewed in the first film, death hovers close at hand as it inevitable does in any life story.  There is a presaging of great suffering in the first film, and indeed it arrives with full force in the second and third films, giving a bitterly ironic flavor to the happy-go-lucky resonances in the clichéd fantasies of carefree lives that echo in the films titles (to live as a butterfly, day by day).  This ironic taste lingers long after the films, a reminder of the rotten character of some of our core social institutions.

Borboletas da Vida” and “Basta um Dia” are bound together by a single event, the systematic murder of a group of people including a number of transgenders, sex workers over the course of a single evening.  Some victims were shot on the side of the road, unfortunately in the wrong place at the wrong time, while others were killed, execution style, on the railway tracks and their bodies left to be mutilated by the trains.  That evening’s rampage is referred to be survivors and other members of the Fluminense Valley travesty/gay community as a “massacre,” a term that captures the scale, horror and intention behind the event.  It is this event and its aftermath that is the overt subject of the film.  But de Almeida also follows its symbolic lead into a social analysis that pries open a number of platitudes, not least of which are those that travel in the guise of liberal notions of individual rights and freedoms.  If I were asked to name the subject of these two films, I would say that they are films about the limits of contemporary social discourse to truly articulate and analyze the suffering of those on the margins.  They are, therefore, films that demand a radical responsibility on the part of the viewer, a responsibility that exceeds even our most well-intended lamentations of the structural violence that is the condition for the exploitation and denigration of travesti.  What I mean is that these films call into question our own sense of self and how our subjectivities are complicit with sexual and gender norms.  The implication, then, is that radical action against such violence begins with a change within ourselves, which is a far more profound act of solidarity than is usually meant by the use of that word.

Travestis are easily romanticized as gender revolutionaries.  In Brazil, where most travestis are from the poorest class and are often people of color, the fantasy of revolution can be especially seductive, re-spinning long tales of the country’s pursuit of rights and freedoms.  These travesti romances are strongly scented with the real because they are ones the travesti themselves appear to harbor as is clear in the visions the young people share in de Almeida’s first film in the series.  Even the great suffering that conditions the lives of most if not all travesti provides fodder for romance in the form of tales and images of either resilient fortitude in the face of adversity or spectacular tragedy.  To live one perfect day, a legendary day, in which one rises above the squalor, the pedantic frustrations and niggling disregard or outright vilification of one’s everyday circumstances, is a sweet proposition. 

It is the evocation of this romantic vocabulary and its precise dismantling that is most compelling in de Almeida’s work.  To a large extent this is an ironic analysis in which de Almeida places two contradictory propositions side by side and allows them to interact.  For example, he quotes well-known and much loved torch songs in which the singer is a beautiful flame burning brightest just before it is extinguished.  This soundtrack (from a song by famous Brazilian composer and singer, Chico Buarque de Holanda, which gives the film its title “Basta Um Dia”) returns a number of times during the film as events of violence and destruction unfold on the screen.  With each repetition the words of the song demand a different interpretation, usually more caustic, angrier.  This sense of the world as a perverse cabaret is reinforced in “Basta Um Dia” by the insertion of a macabre clown face, its distorted features and direct gaze doing more to convey the traumatic aftermath of the massacres than any interview or even documentary photograph.  Once again, it is something in the clown’s direct gaze that calls us to question who we are in that moment, what we will do in response and, most importantly, what we will become through our actions or lack thereof.

As I am suggesting, the gaze of the clown opens up a plane of investigation beyond the frame of the film.  In some senses, the most interesting parts of the film are actually not within the frame, in what is literally visible on the screen, they are in what the montages suggest about the process de Almeida uses to construct his projects and the impact the films have once they are completed and shared.  I consider this the films’ ethnographic aura.  Written ethnographic texts construct an explicit narrative and propose a clearly argued analysis.  Behind these texts, however, lies the complex social labor of fieldwork—the building of relationships, the missteps and confusions of cultural learning, and the perplexing encounters with the limits of oneself. 

These are usually glimpsed in unedited quotations from field notes or in the moments when the ethnographer breaks the intellectual voice of his or her writing to confess a desire, fear, delight or confusion.  This work of “being together” is close to impossible to record on the page if one adheres to the conventions of ethnographic writing  which is unfortunate, as it is in this work that meaningful transformation may actually be taking place.  It is here that the ethnographer actually learns that she or he is a product of location and history and that the “ethnographic encounter” can realign the self.  It is here that interaction becomes praxis as strangers work together to make sense of events and to fashion how they may intervene.  This same process lies behind de Almeida’s series of films.  He has years of involvement with the travesti and positions himself not just as an ally and advocate but as co-provocateur, using the construction of his films and the discussions following the many screenings he tirelessly hustles to schedule to deepen the analysis of inequality, violence and, most particularly, the terror underlying the everyday romance of the lives of others.  This is a deeply ethical project.

Robert Sember
Independent Scholar and Critic


 

"Living Day by Day", directed by Vagner de Almeida, illustrates several dimensions of the lives of travestis in the periurban regions of Rio de Janeiro.

The film centers on exposing the violence suffered by these Brazilian "citizens" on a daily basis. They are not only targeted in hate crimes, but they are also marginalized by socio-economic factors and vulnerability to HIV infection, as well as by gender norms and dichotomous understandings of
sexuality (homosexual v. heterosexual).

Between the lines, the film also shows the complexity in understanding gender by showing how conventional rules associated with masculinity and femininity create hybridized norms.

At the same time, it is difficult to fit travestis within hegemonic gay and lesbian lifestyles -- having important implications for social mobilization for the rights of those most marginalized in a world ruled by identity politics. Interestingly, this process of ethnographic film making revealed that some travestis turn to religion to understand and form communities.

In the field sites captured by this film, religions of African origin, such as Candomble and Umbanda, have been places where travestis have been most included and where prevention for HIV has been carried among travestis (who usually practice sex work). In short, where do their subjective experiences fit social categories and identities around which movements are organized? And what are the implications of this exclusion from mobilization (through politicized community building) against violence.

Jonathan Garcia
Student, Sociomedical Sciences
Mailman School of Public Health
Columbia University


A Review of Almeida's documentaries “Ritos e Ditos de Joven Gays” (2002) and “Basta Um Dia” (2007)

During the past decade, critics and moviegoers alike have witnessed an outpouring of significant film documentaries from the Latin American nation of Brazil. These films concern how contemporary Brazilian people experience complex struggles of social injustice and violations of human rights, among others. In this growing area of film production, the Brazilian activist and film director, Vagner de Almeida, has indeed produced several noteworthy and thought-provoking contributions that reflect upon the lives of youths and economically disadvantaged people; that is to say, Almeida's documentary films convey intriguing social commentaries about underrepresented Brazilian lives and culture, and thereby show that numerous individuals and communities seek to cope with extraordinary challenges, such as discrimination, marginalization and violence. Two of his most recent works, Ritos e Ditos de Jovems Gays (Rites and Saying of Gay Youth) and  Basta um Dia (Living day by day) narrate the troubled lives and strategies of young queer youth and travestis—many of whom are relegated to the peripheries of their cultures because of their lower social classes and minority identities. In particular, “Ritos e Ditos” (2002) is a compelling work of cinema because it reveals how several young queer Brazilian men face experiences of exclusion and inclusion in their everyday world.

Almeida's intriguing film, “Ritos e Ditos de Jovens Gays”, shows us that despite the terrible adversity of problems like homophobia, there is nonetheless a thriving community of queer youth culture in Brazil. Almeida's documentary illuminates the great creativity, intelligence and strong will of Brazilian queer youths. And in this way, Almeida demonstrates that despite their struggles, these young queer men successfully devise stratagems to actualize their desires and life goals. “Ritos e Ditos” explores the difficult hurdles that these young men encounter through an interview-like style, which records the youths feelings and testimonials. As the young men speak into the camera's lens, “Ritos e Ditos…” captures queer lived experience and reinvigorates the rich tradition of the Latin American testimonial—thus creating a dialogue between both tradition and innovation. Similarly, “Basta um Dia”(2007) employs the same kind of testimonial-like format; furthermore, while “Ritos e Ditos” portrays a more up-beat commentary on Brazilian queer life, “Basta um Dia” recounts more of a cautionary and critical story about the underclass community of travestis.

By and large, “Basta um Dia” visualizes how a sizable number of Brazilian travestis in Brazil's Fluminense Valley respond to a heartrending massacre of travestis that recently traumatized their community. Through these testimonials, Almeida's film exposes how some of Brazil's dominant culture, such as the neighborhood police force, indeed views the travesti community as an expendable group and persona non grata. In response, “Basta um Dia” productively calls out for legal and social justice as a means to overturn the pernicious disenfranchisement of this community in the Fluminense Valley. The film hence fosters a message of tolerance, while also providing a modicum of social empowerment to individuals who have historically been silenced. To be sure, “Basta um Dia” and “Ritos e Ditos” are politically progressive interventions because they recuperate the stories of endangered Brazilian lives. Without question, Almeida's work deserves much credit and praise because his films very much honor the humanity of an underprivileged and underrepresented community. In this way, Vagner de Almeida's documentaries indeed evince a vast potential for several reasons. These works evince style and intellect, and at the same time, they hold the potential for mobilizing people and educating communities about the problems of economic inequality, ostracism and prejudice.

Eduard Chamberlain
Indiana University
2008         

 



for more information email: vagner.de.almeida@gmail.com