With all of the bathroom debate going on at the state Capitol in Austin, SXSW has decided to highlight a new documentary about Brazilian performers who were born male and pursued a life of dressing up as women and singing — and “acting!”
“Divine Divas” tracks the lives of the first generation of Brazilian transvestite and drag artists of the 1960s. And yes, there’s a difference between transvestites and drag artists, and that difference can be easily Googled. But this documentary includes both. Some are transgender as well, although this word apparently isn’t used in Brazil the same way it’s used in the United States. It’s complicated.
They all started performing a generation ago at the Rival Theatre in Rio de Janeiro, one of the first venues to embrace such artists. It was founded by Americo Leal, the grandfather of the director of “Divine Divas,” Leandra Leal.
The rise of such divas in Rio was highly controversial, as the director points out, in part because the performers challenged the rigid moral standards of a military dictatorship and insisted on individual freedoms.
“Divine Divas” brings eight of these performers back together again after they have entered their 70s. And it celebrates their 50 years as performers.
They get to tell their stories, and no two stories are exactly alike. Some have chosen to have hormone treatments. Some chose to have surgery. Some live as women. Some do not. It’s complicated, as life usually is. But there’s a general enjoyment of life, with few regrets.
The performers sing their own songs, and some are quite good. The documentary takes us behind the scenes to show how some of the people transform themselves into their stage presences. And they talk of the difficulties they faced when they were much younger.
In the press notes for the movie, the director says she “understood that each of their lives — every one of them — was a work of art, but also a political gesture. As artists, they allowed themselves to build a new identity, to sculpt their bodies to be on stage, to live from their dreams and, for that matter, to live the great spectacle of being who you truly are.”
Now that’s a great line — living the great spectacle of being who you truly are.
“Divine Divas” screens at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Alamo South.