Evangelia Kranioti has professionally produced both documentary films and photography in the Mediterranean and Greater Europe since 2007, offering a vibrant observation of the transnational and transitory states of various communities. Initially educated in law at the University of Athens in her home country of Greece, Kranioti has also studied at the film and television school La Fémis in Paris, and now again resides in Athens. Producing films and photography that reflect her own restless ideology threaded with classical Greek literary influences, Kranioti’s work is both inward- and outward-looking, concentrating on both migrant groups and agitated identities. With her most recent film, Obscuro Barroco (Obscure Baroque, 2018), for example, Kranioti analyzes the complexities of transgender communities in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, using an interior monologue script compiled from Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s 1973 prose collection Água Viva.
Drawing on traditional ceremonies born of the country’s horrific colonial history in contrast with the explosive animation of present-day Carnaval parades, Obscuro Barroco documents a city in staggering scope, lensing cultural transition with microscopic precision. The film darts from the streets to secretive interior environments, guided by a mysterious woman who ventures from the underground queer club scene to the top of the city’s peaks. The film’s nebulous vision garnered widespread festival interest and industry recognition, winning the TEDDY Jury Award at the Berlin International Film Festival, Best International Documentary Feature at the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival, Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival’s Emerging Filmmaker Award, and two Iris awards from the Greek Film Academy as well as nominations from the Directors Guild of America and the American Society of Cinematographers, among others. Kranioti’s photography works in her 2019 exhibition The Living, the Dead and Those at Sea at France’s biggest photography festival, Les Rencontres d’Arles, have received similar accolades, winning the Prix de la Photo Madame Figaro. The exhibition made economic use of film stills from Obscuro Barroco and Kranioti’s 2015 documentary Exotica, Erotica, Etc.
Though Kranioti’s work is not located within the recent wave of migrant crisis documentary films such as Salam Neighbor (2015, directed by Zach Ingrasci and Chris Temple) or Unknown Refugee (2016, directed by Hamy Ramezan), her vast span of influence is still fundamentally bound to a sense of social justice. Kranioti has lived and worked in the Mediterranean, various parts of South America, Egypt, Lebanon, Siberia, and Northern Africa, where she has documented the movement and forced immobilization of diasporas and their attendant cultural and aesthetic transformations.
Obscuro Barroco regards Brazil’s imperialism with a distinctly critical lens, parsing the murky ethical dilemmas facing most transnational documentarians by highlighting the decolonialism inherent to LGBTQI+ communities. Filmed in Lapa, the nightlife district of Rio de Janeiro, during the 2017 Carnaval season, Obscuro Barroco reflects the period’s increasingly public discussions of transgender issues and presents the trans community as a vital critical magnifying lens for other secretive communities.
Obscuro Barroco works an analysis of Brazil’s not-too-distant colonial history through a portrait of the late Luana Muniz, a transgender activist who, before her death in 2017, lived and worked in Lapa. Muniz is transformed (a key word in the film) into a nocturnal voyager and guide; the activist’s body steams in the evening air as she smokes cigarettes and ponders the serious act of becoming oneself through transition. In Obscuro Barroco themes of birth and death are entwined as rebirth, with no plotted “beginning” or “end” to the film’s action. Instead, action is ongoing, reliant on Lispector’s poetic meditations spoken in their original Portuguese. Using a central intention of capturing the present, the recited poetry fluctuates in pacing and theme. “Like a breathing of the world,” Muniz states after the native Brazilian Preta Velha (“Old Black Woman”) ceremony that opens the film, “life has the same lack of meaning that the pulsing vein has.” Though these cultural references are presented obliquely, Kranioti is vocal about the intentionality that informs her creative process. The following conversation with Kranioti took place on Skype in July 2018, with more recent additions stemming from an August 2020 email exchange.
Your practice balances so many artistic mediums. How did you start directing documentaries?
I was not heading toward film originally; I was doing more interviews and photographs, then these two modes took me to moving images and video. I realized I was supremely intrigued by fiction and, through travelling, that I wanted to pay homage to Rio, the place that had originally given me the urge to film when I was in Brazil for a residency in 2009. I knew if I hadn’t been there then, I wouldn’t have taken a camera in my hands with the intention to make a story. It was then that I began to understand how my camera was making me see the city. I wanted to document it, perhaps return during the 2016 Summer Olympics to see something of the city that felt as urgent as that first time.
I wasn’t sure at that time, so instead I went away and did a postgraduate diploma at Le Fresnoy–Studio national des arts contemporains, an institution that encourages expansion in digital media. I started doing these photographic projects, which evolved into my first film, Exotica, Erotica, Etc. (2015).1 This film was a hybrid of documentary and fiction. Then I started seriously studying film again, this time at Ecole nationale supérieure Louis Lumière and then at La Femis. My interests had shifted suddenly from art in a gallery space to art in the cinema space. In 2016 I had a proposal from the Biennale of Moving Images in Geneva to do whatever I liked, so I thought I would go back and tell a story about Rio and its people. That’s how Obscuro Barroco started. I used to spend my time on the field investigating and exploring, but for Obscuro Barroco I spent my time writing and creating the field in my mind instead.
Could you say more about gallery screenings and installations vs. theatrical distribution?
I have international distribution from Syndicado, which is based in Toronto, but a theatrical release isn’t that important for me. I think maybe the best place to watch my work is in the theatre, but I think it would be great for my work to continue to be screened in alternative spaces like galleries. Distribution can be only a few days in cinemas, especially for avant-garde films. As Obscuro Barroco is not a mainstream film it might even only get screened once a week for a limited time. The circuit of distribution is rather narrow for films with an unidentifiable scope. We do get invitations [for festival screenings]; then we get impressive feedback.
Luana Muniz was an iconic figure of Rio de Janeiro’s queer and nightlife community, and following her throughout those venues was a perfect way to explore the city. Considering that she usually operated in queer spaces, I’m curious how you came to work with her?
I was in Rio working on an art project, the beginnings of Obscuro Barroco, focusing on alphabetical structures as a way of exploring connections between the images I was filming. Little by little, it became clear to me that I wasn’t interested in an exhaustive project filming words and notions and situations. There were some certain ones, though. For example, “transformation” was a key word, and I kept it in my mind as it was telling me a lot about the constant metamorphosis of the city around me.
I thought of filming in the center of the city, but I wanted to seek permission from this figure I had heard about, Luana Muniz, because she was in charge of the center of Rio through her political activism and friendships with many of the people who lived and worked there. It was for logistical reasons that I wanted to meet her, but I ended up collaborating with her on Obscuro Barroco because during our first meeting we had a very strong connection. I had seen photos and book projects about her and she had even been the subject of a previous documentary.2 What happened is that I met this old soul; there was a light emanating from her. Next to her I felt like a person without education or sensibility, but I knew immediately that she possessed, completely, what I was looking for. I was a stranger to her, she could have reacted in any way to me, but it turned out to be an extremely interesting conversation about many topics, and at the end she proposed we work together.
Working with Luana was not very easy, however. She had over the course of her life created a persona, a creature of her own making, one she showed the world. She was educated and wild at the same time. First there was difficulty because of her experience with other directors, and also, being a spokesperson for the trans community, she had developed a mechanical way of reacting: she would be the “activist” she was known for, and I wanted to break this constructed role. The process of filming, likewise, came from a desire to do “something else,” something more with her as an actress. This “something else” came out of many efforts and feelings of failure and also experimentation, all with Luana.
Obscuro Barroco is poetic, sensual, and artistic. But it also documents queer political struggle and postcolonialism.3 How did you achieve this?
The Greek and Brazilian cultures are very different, but from the first time I set foot in Brazil it felt so familiar and close and natural for me, so I learned the language. I’m constantly feeling my otherness when I’m traveling, but that sense suddenly became very confusing in Brazil because I knew I wasn’t from there, yet I felt like I belonged. What draws me back constantly is a desire to explore something that belonged to me—my Greek identity and this other Brazilian identity too—as if I was standing on the opposite shore. But at the same time, because this was the complete opposite of my Greek culture and identity, it became close to my real identity. It was like a flowing circle.
I desired to explore the nature of Greek tragedy, of tragedy as I knew it, and how it intersected with my experiences in Brazil. Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872) speaks about the two elements that compose the act of tragedy as we know it: the Apollonian and the Dionysian.4 I thought my own identity would correspond more with the Apollonian, but while I was in Brazil the Dionysian became a part of the film too. I was interested in exploring the places and spaces of tragedy in other cultures, and that brought me to the origins of the Baroque—these artistic moments in time that become a perception of the world. Baroque came to Brazil through the white Portuguese conquistadors. This art they brought with them became something else, became Brazilian Barroco in the hands of the new generation of artists, workers, sculptors, writers, and musicians who were born through the relations that occurred between black slaves brought from Africa, the white colonizers, and native Brazilians. There was born a whole new social class of children who weren’t slaves, but instead many were destined for the arts to articulate their new ways of thinking. I realized Brazilian Baroque was created by these individuals who were dreaming of a new way, new forms, new art, something that was really a new—a new religion.
I thought of the old story of Aleijadinho, a Brazil-born sculptor and architect, the son of a Portuguese colonizer and an African slave. He had an illness (which might have been leprosy) so he would come out only at night to sculpt. He designed and constructed many buildings in the village of Ouro Preto in the Barroco design; it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it represents the Brazilian Baroque period.
Speaking about the Baroque style and trying to understand the links between Brazilian culture and its relation to Portuguese culture, I discovered more texts, including Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibalism Manifesto, 1928) by Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade. Manifesto Antropófago is about Brazilian culture by way of the Indigenous Tupi, who were rumored by colonizers to digest their enemies to absorb their strength and power.5 Brazilian culture similarly incorporates roots from other cultures and makes it something new and different, and this is what happened with the Barroco. When I was reading about Classic Baroque operas and other forms of literature, I realized the central dramatic figure is a hero, a tragic hero similar to that of Greek tragedy: a sensitive person caught between the logic of the mind (Apollonian) and the heart or bodily passions (Dionysian). So this duality between the colonizers of the Old World and the artisans of the “New” brought me to the transition of restless bodies, bodies that are trying to solve a human drama of identity. By observing Barroco architecture around Rio, I was aware of the tragedy of identity and the heroic trans figure.
When did you decide to work with the themes of transition in terms of the LGBTQI+ community?
While observing Rio’s Carnaval I saw all kinds of people, and because of the costumes I didn’t know who was of what gender anymore, but it didn’t matter. I wanted to invite a person to speak about this city as someone who was its dream in a way—as obscuro as the city. This is what I found in the transformed figures of trans women in Rio. This is when I realized Luana was a person who could speak about this experience and in a very poetic and powerful way. At the same time I didn’t just want a person who would talk as though being interviewed about trans issues per se, but someone who would organically reflect the poetics of Rio, a city that is a mirror of itself. Luana thought she was just another character of Rio. We had discussions in which she said “This city is me” and the image of Rio began to have a cryptic Christian echo, in a way. Christians say that God made us in his image, and Luana made herself in the image of the city she was living in.
I wanted the film to be a hybrid of documentary and fiction. Because of this duality of elements, it sounds complicated but it makes sense—even though it was a weird recipe to follow. When you start a film you have all these references in mind and you don’t know where to start, but things fell into place when I met Luana. She felt relatable enough to me and at the same time she was a piece of living history. She was an icon in the Rio queer community. When I first met her it was like a déjà vu, so I wanted to make another film just about her that very much lived in the moment, filming the nature of these city images and Carnaval, and at the same time experiencing my own Greek tragedy, which became linked to local music.
Could you comment on the political elements in the film?
This is where my film came to life in Rio, in August 2016, when Michel Temer replaced Dilma Rousseff as president of Brazil. I began to see many people singing in the street together in a chorus when the news broke, like in a Greek tragedy. This form, the ensemble in the chorus I found everywhere that night; in every manifestation outside in the street there was a chorus. It was like a Greek chorus, except the women were singing the 1978 song “Apesar de Você” (“Despite You”) by Chico Buarque, a popular singer/songwriter. The song was written during a military dictatorship and is extremely politically charged.6 These women were singing “Apesar de Você” in the streets and I realized I had to speak about politics and trans issues being so present in Brazil. These people made it seem as though they spoke on behalf of all the trans people I had interviewed for Obscuro Barroco.7 All the democratic demands, the queer community, and the citizens became one concern—or at least it seemed as though they were on the same level. At that moment it felt as though no one was less important than any other, and that is where the political element intervenes in the film. To me, it was another way of seeing a chorus in a Greek tragedy. So that was an element that I stitched together from my own culture and the fragments I recognized in Brazilian culture. I was certain that I wanted a trans person to be the guide through these transformed cultures. Only a person like this could bring all of the elements together: my love of Greek tragedy, Rio de Janeiro, the LGBT+ community, poetics…. It’s not just reportage or a documentary about historical elements; it’s viewing transformation through a portrait of the whole city.
Why did you choose Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva as the base text for Muniz’s narration?
I was already editing the film when this book fell into my hands. Lispector is one of my beloved writers, but I had not read Água Viva. When you edit a project that doesn’t have a linear narrative, usually there are very dense editorial sessions and you don’t have the time or frame of mind to concentrate on other things or read books. But I read it the weekend I got it. It was at this precise moment that I was wondering if I should write some narration to help the navigation between the different islands of flow in the film. The project was very fragmented and it was between different worlds and I had no intention of binding them together. At that point I thought it would be an installation or a visual archive online. I had started filming thinking it would be short—an abstract or a documentary. Then I realized I wanted to make a feature film, and that I needed something to make these islands flow together, so I thought they could pass through a text I would write. When I read Água Viva I felt a profound flow—a monologue with no beginning, middle, or end. As happened with the song by Chico Buarque, a trans person could have spoken the phrases I read in Água Viva, because it plays with this ambiguity of identity and gender but from another perspective. Lispector’s monologues that help frame Barroco could have been written by Luana.
I had to dig into Lispector’s text to find what echoed my images. It felt like there were complementary elements; I could imagine those words being spoken over my images of nature and the city. That is when I went back to Brazil and asked Luana to read the book. I had already started editing parts of Luana’s own monologues about Rio and her experiences in the queer community into the film, but some parts just weren’t fitting. I put Luana reading Água Viva into the film and that’s when Obscuro Barroco really started to exist. There’s a black light scene I shot in which I really noticed Lispector’s presence was suddenly in the film. Água Viva created sequences in my mind; it had a relationship with the film and that was it. Água Viva and now Obscuro Barroco really did have multiple identities.
At one point in Água Viva Lispector writes, “The oblique life is very intimate.” Would you say Obscuro Barroco is focused on similar intimacies and abstractions, people who are queered or othered, who rely on this obscuro to survive?
Água Viva means Stream of Life in English, but it also could be loosely interpreted as Méduse, which is French for jellyfish. It’s funny because Luana is sort of like a Méduse: she can sting you or just float by beautifully.
Obscuro Barroco was always going to be (because of the subject matter and images) an aquatic, dark film. Senses don’t matter anymore; it takes you to that secret dark place and that place is occupied by the “Méduse”—Luana—so it felt familiar and it was a fictional element in this documentary that made other things possible. Lispector was born in Ukraine and uses language in a very strange way; her word order is unusual and not how you speak in Portuguese. It felt right for this oblique way of speaking to be present in the narration in the same way it was in my images. Curved, slanted…it was about being oblique. It reminded me of all these explosions of life I had filmed in Rio epitomizing the present tense—if anything, Rio is about being present. It’s that same urgency that years ago made me want to film the city in the first place.
The style of the film is constantly moving, fluctuating, transforming. At times I wasn’t sure, sometimes for lengthy periods, what I was looking at—the whole screen was just abstracted shapes. What were your aesthetic influences?
What really happened to me in Rio was that I found my new world in cinema. I wanted to begin this tribute to the place in my own way: tonally it’s quite a dark city and I wanted to film the contrast, so I went after nightscapes, looking for things shining in the dark. So it was not consciously stylized as I was pretty much trying to replicate the way I looked at Rio, all these moments and situations. I was dreaming away without watching any films for influence; I was listening to music and dreaming with the city. I was trying to imagine people and situations; this is what was happening when I brought the camera over in that aerial shot of the favelas in the beginning of Obscuro Barroco, after the prologue in the rainforest. The combination of nature and wild Rio was one of those exercises of dreaming with the city.
There is a very authentic moment early in Obscuro Barroco when Luana is talking straight to the camera. She says, “Trans [people] are enlightened beings that sometimes can’t even handle the light that they themselves emanate from their deepest core.” What was your intention in introducing her in this way?
This religious synchronicity, this ritual that is conducted with Luana in the beginning of the film, the Umbanda ritual, is related to spirits and light.8 It’s called Preta Velha. Again, it’s about this colonization era, when slaves would keep their own religions and traditions. Through the creation of religions in Cuba and other places, this ritual when performed is appealing to the compassion of the spirit of an old African slave who gives their benedictions to the person. I wanted it to be in the film because cinema in a way is about embodying characters and becoming someone else, even in documentary. With Luana there was a desire to be someone else—to emanate light from her authentic self—and it was very important to me to start the film with this ritual. It’s from a culture with incredible heritage. So to be an outsider, to arrive newly in a place with this culture and ritual, the age of the earth and the age of the stone are so present. Lispector’s monologue means so much to me because it’s about timelessness. With no gender or religion, Lispector’s book talks about the Obscuro of the black mass inside oneself, the Barroco of identity. The ritual had to be there and Lispector’s narration brings this timelessness to the film, a timelessness I feel the country has. This darkness and light flow together. Obscuro Barroco transforms and devours, infinitely.
Kranioti’s first film was about merchant vessels of Greek maritime companies.
Luana Muniz: Daughter of the Moon, directed by Leonardo Menezes Rian Cordova, was made in 2017 and screened at IDFA, Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival.
Obscuro Barroco has been nominated in both the Human Rights and Art Doc competitions at various festivals.
Apollonian and Dionysian refer to “the twin principles which the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche detected in Greek civilization in his early work Die Geburt der Tragödie (The Birth of Tragedy, 1872). Nietzsche was challenging the usual view of Greek culture as ordered and serene, emphasizing instead the irrational element of frenzy found in the rites of Dionysus (the god of intoxication known to the Romans as Bacchus). He associated the Apollonian tendency with the instinct for form, beauty, moderation, and symmetry, best expressed in Greek sculpture, while the Dionysian (or Dionysiac) instinct was one of irrationality, violence, and exuberance, found in music.” Chris Baldick, The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms 4th ed., “Apollonian and Dionysian” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
The Tupi people were one of the more numerous Indigenous Brazilian tribes, and the Nago were a community native to Nigeria. There have been disputed reports of cannibalism in Native Brazilian culture, including in the Tupi community, inhabitants of what would become the Rio de Janeiro region.
Written and released in 1978, “Apesar de Você” was critical of the lack of freedoms during the military dictatorship of General Emílio Garrastazu Médici. The song was banned from Brazilian radio stations as a result. It has had a contemporary resurgence.
Dilma Rousseff notoriously suspended “anti-homophobia kits” designed to educate children about Brazil’s 2011 legalization of same-sex civil unions.
Umbanda is a syncretic Afro-Brazilian religion, blending African traditions with Roman Catholicism, Spiritism, and Indigenous American beliefs.