Cape Verde is an archipelago composed of 10 volcanic islands off the coast of West Africa. It is said to have been an uninhabited landmass, discovered and populated by the slaving Portuguese in the late 1400s. The area lacked natural resources, and with the demise of slavery, today’s meager population of half a million souls’ survival is based on commerce, the service industry, shipping, tourism and fishing. The island’s ethnic makeup is mostly composed of Creoles with West African and European heritage.
Mindelo is a small town on the island São Vicente, Cape Verde, known as the cultural capital of Cape Verde. During an investigative trip to Mindelo for a book on LGBT communities, Spanish journalist Marc Serena met transgender activist Tchindas, and was introduced in turn to the late singer Cesária Évora.
Serena was taken aback by the anomaly presented in Tchindas and the town of Mindelo. Many African countries have created draconian laws condemning homosexuals to life in prison and even death. But in Cape Verde, Tchindas is a thriving and highly respected member of the small community. Her name has become synonymous with LGBT on the island.
Filmmaker Pablo García Pérez de Lara and Marc Serena created Tchindas (debuting on AfroPop.tv this week), which transports viewers to São Vicente in Cape Verde. Powered by the evocative soundtrack of Cesária Évora, the documentary follows the celebrated character, out and proud until her death in 2011, as she prepares for the beloved annual carnival. We spoke to the director on the eve of the premiere.
EBONY: What inspired you to create this film?
Marc Serena: There are already some films denouncing the way LGBT people are treated in Africa—like Call Me Kuchu or God Loves Uganda—that explain how many are persecuted by their sexual identity in Africa. I wanted to show the other side of the story, which is that LGBT or trans women are respected, which is the case in Cape Verde. It’s very different from other countries.
The neighboring countries are Mauritania, where there is the death penalty for same sex relationships; Senegal, [where] there is very harsh persecution towards LGBT people; Gambia has even stricter laws than it had three or four years ago. In Cape Verde, we show in the film that they celebrate it.
EBONY: What is your affiliation to the continent?
MS: I was already in the city of Mindelo, working on a book as a journalist in Cape Verde in 2011, and I was there with Tchinda when I met Cesária Évora. Cesária was friends with Tchinda, and the doors of her home were always open. She suggested that I should come back for Carnival, because it is the best carnival in Africa, but then she died 36 hours after this conversation. We were like the last people to talk to one of the most celebrated artists in Cape Verde, and that’s how the idea for the documentary started to grow.
When we attended her funeral, we felt that we had Cesária’s blessing to make this film. People applauded during the premiere in Cape Verde.
EBONY: There’s been an #OscarsSoWhite outcry in Hollywood. The situation there reflects a lack of diversity in filmmaking. How important do you feel it is that trans people make films featuring other transgender people?
MS: It is actually very uncomfortable for me. I am not trans. I would love that more trans people would be making these films. For example, with the book I’m writing, I would love that an African journalist would write a book denouncing the laws against LGBT people in their countries. And I would love that trans people were not discriminated against. I love when trans people are not just appearing on screen, but directing and acting. But there are very few films portraying the African trans community, and I think it is nice that we can add Tchinda’s perspective to this film.
As journalists, we go to war, and this is like covering a war. There is a war against LGBT people. They are facing violence and murder. I am just documenting it. I wish an African director did this film. It would be ideal.
EBONY: In the sense of transgender, what makes Cape Verde different?
MS: I don’t want to paint all African countries with a wide brush, but it is alarming that 34 out of 54 countries have severe laws against LGBT people. The reasons are really complex. One of the reasons for me is that Cape Verde is an example for gender equality, and one fight goes with the other. Yes, there should be better laws protecting the trans women there. But it is much better than other countries.
EBONY: Your documentary captures a slice of life for a transgender woman who is able to walk freely in the streets and openly participate in her community. You have painted Cape Verde as a utopia. Is this actually the case?
MS: The gender equality situation in Cape Verde is quite interesting. The film is shot during the carnival, which brings so many good vibrations. But the situation on the island for the LGBT community is still very complex, and there are still many struggles which trans people in Cape Verde are facing. For example, Tchinda still cannot have her name on her legal documents. The government is not recognizing her as a woman. Cape Verde is not a paradise.
But when compared with the other African countries, it is like, “wow.” Yes, they should have better laws protecting the trans women in Cape Verde. But if she went to Senegal, the closest nearby country, she would suffer violence at the hands of the police, even though it is a democracy.
EBONY: Would you agree that the film paints a perfect picture, but not a realistic picture, of LGBT treatment in Cape Verde?
MS: I wouldn’t be so full to say my documentary represents everything, represents Cape Verde, represents the LGBT women in Cape Verde. I would say that after visiting 20 African countries, this is the most empowered community of trans women that I’ve found in Africa. I’m really surprised by how they are respected, and how they have won the right to walk on the street, and how the community embraces them. The families leave their children with Tchinda to practice carnival dances. I don’t know other places in the world where mothers and fathers would leave their kids with a trans person.
Suede has spent a decade between the Americas, South Africa and Tanzania creating content for print, TV, radio and digital media. His interests include photography, pop culture, social media and travel. Follow him on Twitter @iamsuede.