Monika Treut met Yvonne Bezerra de Mello a few years ago, through mutual friends in New York City. "Upon meeting her I knew I had to make a film about her," says Treut, whose previous films have examined the lives of sexual nonconformists. Treut says she was immediately taken with de Mello's courage and complexity: educated at the Sorbonne and the wife of a wealthy businessman, de Mello has spent 20 years working with poor children in Rio de Janeiro. "She leads a double life in Brazil because she's part of the upper class there, but she works with poor people in the slums, the favelas. That's something very unusual, because in Brazil the upper class pretends people in the favelas are thieves and drug dealers and have nothing to do with them at all."
After taking a crash course in Portuguese, Treut spent six months last year documenting de Mello's life and her bright, noisy school, Projeto Uere. "She's not invited to lunches and dinners anymore," says Treut. "She's a very controversial figure in Brazil." She even received death threats for her work publicizing the military police's 1993 shooting of eight street boys in front of Our Lady of Candelaria Church in downtown Rio, protesting for three years until the officers were brought to trial. "They tried to silence her but they didn't succeed," says Treut.
The filmmaker has raised a few eyebrows herself. A few years ago she was teaching at Hollins College, a women's liberal arts school in Virginia, when the local paper published an article that mentioned that Treut's films were populated with prostitutes, transsexuals, and gay people. "That was enough to outrage a local Baptist church," says Treut. "So they all came. They showed the films at the college, so they showed up holding signs like, 'It's not right to do what's wrong.' I actually liked that sign quite a bit."
For the past few weeks the Hamburg-based Treut has been a visiting scholar at UIC's Department of Germanic Studies, where she's led workshops and shown her films. Despite her experience in Virginia, she's found that American audiences are more open to her work than Europeans. "Europeans feel like 'nothing can shock us' but deep down they don't know as much as they pretend to know. On that level I find Americans more open and honest."
She says the new film, Warrior of Light, is no tamer than her previous work, just "more directly political." She and de Mello attended its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last month, where she had hoped to land a distributor. But the screening took place two days after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. "The festival almost stopped," Treut says. "A lot of buyers just left after Tuesday. I understand that perfectly well. Yvonne and I were glued to the TV set. We were not in the mood to go to movies for the first few days."
Still, she hopes the documentary will soon find a distributor and raise awareness of de Mello's work. "Right now she has one project in one favela. She's been asked by a lot of other favelas to branch out; there should be a house in every slum in Rio where the kids are taken care of and get an education."
Treut will discuss Warrior of Light after a free sneak preview screening (on video) Monday, October 8, at 5 at Gallery 400 in UIC's Art and Design Hall, 400 S. Peoria; call 312-996-3205.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.