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Portrait of Julia: Gustave Vinagre on I Remember the Crows

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By Gary M. Kramer.

Julia Katherine is a trans actress with insomnia. In I Remember the Crows, her director, Gustavo Vinagre, films her as she monologues about her childhood – suffering abuse at a young age when her great uncle initiated a relationship with her – as well as talking about other experiences that shaped her life. Some of the tales, such as her recounting her fear at the procedure of getting silicone injections, are illuminating; Julia claims her mother threatened her if she changed her body. (She also maintains that her mother blames her for the family walking out on her after Julia came out.) Other stories, about how films saved her from suicide, belie Julia’s pronouncement that she is like a heroine in an Ozu film. The actress can also be coy; she claims sex was her outlet when she faced issues, and she talks briefly, about making – both directing and starring in – sex (porno) videos. However, some of her chatter, as when she describes her enthusiasm for watching award shows, is less significant.

Julia talks and talks and talks – the 80-minute film never leaves the confines of Julia’s apartment and for viewers who don’t hang on her every word, I Remember the Crows may be enervating. But Vinagre is obviously fascinated by his subject and knows her well; she seems to delight in his ability to get her to recount humiliating stories. The filmmaker recently spoke about Julia and his film.

You made two short films with Julia. How did you meet her and what made her a good subject/muse?

I met her 10 years ago. I was an intern on Mix Brazil, which had an LGBTQ festival, and was a big website about gay culture. She was a secretary there. She had another name back then and the discussion on transsexuality wasn’t as open as it was now in Brazil. She called herself a transvestite back then. I was amazed about how she spoke about cinema. I lived abroad in Cuba to study film and we lost contact for a few years, and when I got back to Brazil, I searched for her, but she was using another name, so I couldn’t find her.

I wrote the script for the first short film we did together The Care One Takes of the Care Others Must Take of Themselves and we got back on our friendship. I was invited to do another short film – Disaster Film, by a producer which was part of a series of short films – and I had total freedom to do whatever I wanted. So I asked her to be on that film, and that’s how we built our friendship. We did a third short film Fear, Fear, Fear, which was a sequel to Care, and is going to be released shortly.

She had ideas of directing, and I helped her; she just made the short film she talks about in Crows. Now she’s editing and I’m in the process of helping her. I was at a reunion with her and her actresses and she was telling her stories of her life and that was when I had the idea that that could be a film – she had a strong power in telling her stories and they were different each time she told them. I decided I needed to have a film with just her telling her stories.

Are they all true? She could very well be making some of these things up!

Maybe. I heard the stories several times and they have different aspects of them, every time a new aspect. I want to believe her, of course, but I think she has a strong, imaginative power. I think they are all true, but she invents ways to tell the stories. I think she’s really smart and knows that she’s talking to an audience and that she has to play a kind of a woman.

Her childhood abuse story – I heard her telling it in other ways, in funny ways, and laughing but it’s a humor the [film’s] audience wouldn’t accept. I think she’s acting out the suffering of telling that story because she’s aware that the audience needs to engage with her on that. If she told it in the same humorous way she tells it to me she would lose the audience.

The film unfolds over the course of one night. How did you come up with his narrative and how long did it take you to film Crows?

I watched Portrait of Jason several years ago, and it had to do with something I was researching that was in my short films. I was looking at only one-character films. I was amazed by Jason and wanted to do something like that. I put rules to my projects and was looking for simple productions that can allow me to make films with a small crew and little budget. That film was shot in one night. We shot 8 hours. It’s true Julia has insomnia, so I wanted to be with her in one night and talking about her life.

Portrait of Jason (Shirley Clarke, 1967)

Portrait of Jason (Shirley Clarke, 1967)

Given how the film all takes place in one room, how did you devise the narrative to keep viewers engaged over the entire 80 minutes? There were moments to cut away to film clips from movies she mentions, however, other than a single photograph (and the final shot) every minute is on her.

During the editing I thought that maybe I should use images of the films she’s talking about or my films where she acted because that would give a feeling that she’s not inventing and is a real actress, but I felt that it would be too didactic. I think she has this imagination power that to me kind of loses the strength of what she’s saying if we saw fragments of film or photos.

What input did Julia have on the content and direction of the film? How did you collaborate?

We had a script – I had an order for the stories I wanted her to tell. That’s why I was able to shoot it in one night. She had the freedom to improvise something, but I had some questions if I wanted her to go back to the topic I wanted her to speak about. She collaborated by approving the order. I wanted to start with the abuse, because to me, it was important to start there and then show the rest of her stories, rather than have her abuse in the middle of the film, which would change people’s minds about her. I wanted to start with the hardest story. She is also this woman and an actress and a cinephile and a director. I showed her the script and she gave me ideas or mention another story. We had some meetings before the film. She was insecure because of her mother and what people would think about what she would say. We thought about her doing a character and changing her name, so she would feel more secure and safe, but as we were shooting she didn’t feel comfortable, so she was herself. The script was to protect her in a way and that’s why we have some things like the kimono so viewers might doubt what they see. There are several moments that you doubt if it’s true or not, and that made her feel more comfortable to tell everything. The audience could think that it wasn’t all true. That made her feel more secure.

Likewise, as a transwoman, she recounts details about silicone injections that are graphic and reveal how her mother didn’t want her to change her body; her mother also blames her for coming out. Can you discuss Julia as a trans woman and the issues she faces?

CrowsI think it is really hard still for transpeople, especially in Brazil, which has the highest number of trans deaths because of our machismo culture. It’s hard for trans people to get jobs. She faces lots of prejudice and violence. In school, she faced discrimination and never finished her studies. She’s pretty happy with the way she feels and the choices she made, but it wasn’t easy and going out with her on the streets of Brazil, she’s afraid in the metro and is aware of people staring at her. It’s sad to watch her be so afraid. She has an expectation that something bad is going to happen or she’s not going to be accepted, or people will make fun of her. But she’s empowered because she’s officially changed her name and gender on her ID.

In Sao Paolo, they tried to reintegrate trans people in society. She went to school and it was important to go to school and not suffer bullies, and she almost finished. Brazil is starting to have another look at transsexuality now. It’s talked about on TV and we have trans musicians who are famous, like Linn da Quebrada, Liniker, As Bahias e a Cozinha Mineira, and it gives visibility to that and people are starting to talk about it in a new way.

As a queer filmmaker, do you feel the need to present trans visibility? How are trans performers seen in Brazil?

I think it is important but what I dream of is that one day transwomen and men will be doing their own films about their realities. This film is about that. The film starts with abuse and then she’s an actress and then she’s a director and taking over the film and I’m going to direct this. I’m important to talk about that. More trans people are part of our narratives. But not only about transsexuality but as people in different stories and being part of every narrative. But trans people need to be so integrated into society so they make more films We have very little of that.

How do you shape your films, which reflect real life?

I believe that all my films are exploring this mixture between documentary and fiction and to me it’s really important that people who are watching my film doubt the film that they are watching. In a way, I felt that films like that made me feel alive and wanted to watch more. Like when I watched, Grizzly Man by Herzog, or Jogo de Cena by Eduardo Coutinho. Those are good example of what I felt – is this for real? I’m not sure. That changed my way of looking at cinema and life. I think that’s really important. When you doubt a film, you doubt reality. That’s the biggest thing you can do with a film, which is doubt reality and wonder if the world would be different – how would it be? That’s why I always try to make documentaries about the dreams of my characters. I think dreams have a really strong reality to them. Dreams are so real. By first short was about a blind man who was a poet, who talked about his dreams. Or a Cuban man who dreams about seeing his son, who escaped to Miami, again. I like making documentaries about desires, fetishes and dreams. That’s what I search for.

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2

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