Why I Liked Him So Much

For a long time, Madame Satã was just the name of a punk nightclub in São Paulo I used to go to in the '80s. In the early '90s, I found out, reading a small biography, that Madame Satã was born João Francisco dos Santos in 1900 (he died in 1976). I was fascinated and wanted to know more about this legendary transvestite, hustler and patriarch to a band of outcasts. I thought he would be a great character for a film—a mix of Josephine Baker, Jean Genet, and a "tropical" Robin Hood.

Like a detective I started to research about him. I searched the police archives; I interviewed people who knew him; I went to the city where João Francisco was born in the backlands. The Brazilian popular music of the '20s and '30s was also an important source for understanding the character and his time.

During my research, I found a 1928 picture of a black woman with her children seated on the curb of a downtown street. This picture could well have been taken today. Much has changed from that time to the present day, but much has not changed, and social exclusion as a barrier to affirmation as an individual, as a community, and as a cultural presence is one of them. Brazilian society lacks permeability, and even though there appears to be some integration among the different sectors, the social abyss seems to keep on broadening.

Throughout his life João Francisco was an outcast for a number of reasons. But he reacted to it in different ways—with rage, creativity, violence and sweetness. João Francisco was a fighter, always asserting himself, never dispirited. He constructed a myth around himself, and the myth about him was built out of his inventing and "fictionalizing" himself. Performance for him was a strategy of survival. His stance of resistance in a country where exclusion is the rule rather than an exception was what attracted me the most.

For a long time, I was not sure what I should make: a documentary or a fiction film. I realized that, as the character re-invented himself all the time, to document his life was somewhat unfeasible.

A documentary would be just the opposite of the character's experience, and fiction would be the best way to deal with his ability to "invent" himself, to portray his somewhat chameleon-like behavior. After following a number of contradictory clues, I realized that it would put me in a straitjacket if I attempted to be entirely factual about João Francisco. And I could not be genuine if I restrained myself and gave up a freedom he always advocated.

My intention was never to "tell the truth." Interpreting and translating the character seemed to me more of an interesting process. I didn't see much point in it, nor would I know how to tell the truth about such a deceiving character. My intent was actually to be absolutely true to how he perceived himself and to how I perceived him.

A feature of João Francisco's character I have always liked is that he created "short-circuits" in the definitions: when they called him black, he showed up gay; when they called him gay, he showed up poor; he was always something else. It was by constantly re-inventing himself that he could transgress and resist.

It is not my intention to delve into sociology, but I would say he epitomizes Brazil in the way that he takes pleasure out of everyday life, in spite of everyone and everything. There is a fascinating and cruel aspect to the Brazilian, in that his constant quest for pleasure may imply submission to the established rules, an "anything goes" attitude, (even disrespecting himself) for five minutes of pleasure.

The other singular aspect of the character, in addition to exercising his freedom, finding pleasure, and accomplishing his dreams, and in spite of all hurdles, he always asserted himself as a human being. It is a testimony of resistance. For him, fighting for his self-affirmation was never silent. He never accepted being degraded because he was this or that. He was always re-inventing himself, like the phoenix; and Lázaro manages to come out of the ashes victoriously—a testimony of love and life. The film is a celebration of this living resistance.

©2003 Landmark Theatres