A documentary zeros in on a Cape Verde community’s Carnival preparations, with respected and beloved transgender residents leading the efforts
Glue, glitter and feathers are at a premium in Tchindas, a beautifully shot vérité chronicle of the all-consuming Carnival preparations on São Vicente, Cape Verde’s second-most-populous island. A vivid sense of place, community and personalities comes through in the keenly observed film by Pablo Garcia Perez de Lara and Marc Serena, which reveals a seamless fusion of tradition and open-hearted acceptance.
Receiving its world premiere at Outfest Los Angeles, the doc zeros in on one neighborhood’s communal transformation for the annual event, finding at its center the spirited creative leadership of a trio of transgender and gay residents. As the film’s title reflects, the name of one of those figures, the transgender woman Tchinda Andrade, has become the local term for LGBTQ people.
Tchinda is an elder stateswoman of sorts, having come out publicly in 1998, at a time when, as she tells some of her younger friends, “all homosexuals were in the closet.” A revered resident of a working-class corner of the city of Mindelo — “Tchinda rules, end of story,” one man says — she tends bar in her modest eatery, sometimes with a neighbor’s baby in her arms, and takes to the streets, hips swiveling and voice booming, to hawk the finger food coxinhas.
Though she won’t be marching in the 2013 events that the film depicts, Tchinda oversees the community effort, and does her best to defuse the mounting tension. Working with her are Elvis Tolentino, winner of multiple trophies for best dressed at Carnival, and the sweet-faced Edinha Pitanga. Together they conceptualize the ocean-themed float and costumes for the collective fantasy and, with limited funds and limitless inventiveness, they take every detail seriously — every stitch and sequin, every welded framework and papier-mâché creature.
Though nobody other than the central three comes into focus except in relation to Carnival, the feel of community and interdependence is fully alive in co-director Perez’s intimate fly-on-the-wall camerawork in houses, shops and on the cobbled streets. His painterly compositions capture the island’s sun-washed palette, while the sound of Cape Verdean Creole, spoken and sung, is a vibrant music. The directors make apt use of a few mornas by the island nation’s late, great cultural ambassador, the singer Cesaria Evora; it was she who urged Serena, a Barcelona-based journalist, to experience what she called the best Carnival in Africa.
For all the power of the direct-cinema approach, there are pieces of crucial context that are clearer in the production notes than the film itself. The oft-invoked Pomba Gira, a female figure of Afro-Brazilian religion, isn’t explained within the film, but the doc’s final 10 minutes make her power felt in the exultant performances of Edinha, Elvis and others on Carnival day. They wow the locals and tourists who line the city’s main street, with its glimpses of wealth and worldliness that contrast with the sleepy quarter from which Tchinda & Co. hail.
But in the excitement and release of the culminating spectacle, there’s something far more powerful than mere entertainment going on. “I have to feel proud, delicate and joyful,” Edinha declares while working on costumes, and on Carnival day it’s clear that she has achieved her goal. And then there’s the sodade that Evora sang of — the Portuguese notion of nostalgia and longing, captured ineffably on Tchinda’s face when, at film’s end, the party’s over.
Production company: Doble Banda
With: Tchinda Andrade, Elvis Tolentino, Edinha Pitanga, Anita Faiffer
Directors: Pablo Garcia Perez de Lara, Marc Serena
Executive producers: Yolanda Olnos, Marc Serena
Director of photography: Pablo Garcia Perez de Lara
Editor: Pablo Garcia Perez de Lara