The rise of Brazilian transgender cyberpunk

Header illustration by Gareth Damian Martin

As result of his final work for a course in Audiovisual Production at Vila das Artes, an art school sponsored by the Brazilian government, Mozart Freire created the short movie Janaína Overdrive, a new representative of the Brazilian cyberpunk subculture.

Clearly inspired by authors such as William Gibson, especially his 1988 novel Monalisa Overdrive, the film tells the story of a transexual cyborg interpreted by the transgender actress Layla Kayã Sah, after she discovers that she will be substituted by a new technology provided by the Corporation. In order to avoid her own update and disposal, she needs to find a pirate terminal where she can upload her mind and transcend to the virtual world.

Mozart Freire

It’s not the first time that Freire has worked with gender issues in his movies. His first short film, named Cinemão (2015), is about the homoaffective relations that occur in the pornographic gay theaters in downtown Fortaleza, capital of the state of Ceará. Freire explains that his idea was “to keep talking about gender and sexuality in Janaína Overdrive, but now using science-fiction references.” He continues: “I believe that the movies are, in general, a sexist and heteronormative field, so I wanted to deconstruct it by using cyberpunk imaginary.” Freire argues that, as cyberpunk is concerned with the relations between man and machine, the real and the virtual, and the defragmentation of institutions, it would be the perfect genre to use for a narrative that deconstructs the heteronormative idea of gender. “It’s an issue that is addressed timelessly,” he said “but it questions the present time and shows new possibilities of sexuality and protagonism in cinema. Other possible bodies.”

A music video recently released by the Brazilian singer Barbara Ohana for her song “Your Armies” caused some buzz in the country after the actor Cauã Reymond featured as a transgender woman in it. “Your Armies” discusses transgender identity and the violence that comes with it while being heavily inspired by Arcade Fire’s videoclip for their song “We Exist,” in which a heterosexual man (Andrew Garfield) portrays a trans woman too. This is why, when Freire, instead, chose a transgender woman to be the lead actress of his film, it was a political choice. “There’s no visibility or representation of the transexual community in the movies that is done by a trans person, so we need to start giving space to dialogue,” explains Freire.

The character Janaína is a transgender cyborg that sells sex, a heroine that will not submit her body and data to a corporation. Freire says that the fact that she is a cyborg with sexual functions shows her outcast condition, and it also gives a picture of what happens in the cities when the sun goes down. “I show her as a cyborg that sells sex to survive in a timeless futuristic world, in a state of anomia, but she still doesn’t want to be reconfigured by an institution of control,” he says.

Represented as an old white man, dressed in a suit and wearing a hat, the Corporation is a character that appears both as a murder victim, killed by Janaína in the first minutes of the short movie, and as a haunting figure that follows her along her journey. Inspired by Michel Foucault’s studies on biopolitical control and disciplinary societies, the Corporation was designed after the image of policemen as seen in noir movies, but he also depicts an idea of what the controlling institutions would look like if they manifested as a person. Something close to what Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith represented in The Matrix (1999).

The Wachowskis’ movie series is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the many inspirations for the construction of Janaína Overdrive’s world. Besides the Sprawl trilogy by William Gibson, Freire has taken from the typical influences, such as Blade Runner (1982) and Alien (1979), but also 12 Monkeys (1995) and probably Se7en (1995) too, at least if you consider one of the most outstanding characters — an overweight man surrounded by screens through which his mouth speaks and his eyes see. Both he and other characters, in other scenarios, appear in the middle of a confusion of cables and wires, just like Tetsuo, the Iron Man (1989), from where Freire also got his inspiration for the scrappy visuals of his movie’s technology. This is something that was also brilliantly approached by Alex Rivera in Sleep Dealer (2008) and Neill Blomkamp in District 9 (2009) when representing third world countries in a future easily identified by the guiding cyberpunk ethos of “high tech and low life.”

Taking all this in, Freire decided that he wanted to portray a futuristic Brazil — one considered after looking at the city of Fortaleza — in a marginalized context where technology and poverty share the same space with piracy, smuggling, and other illegal practices. “I thought it would be important to add these regional references that show how our ‘global’ reality interacts with the ‘local’,” explains Freire. For this reason he designed an mind uploading room for Janaína Overdrive, where people can wait for the process to complete while lying on hammocks — an item that is very characteristic of the North East of Brazil. Likewise, the rave scene that can be seen in the movie teaser was inspired by a local goth party named Dança das Sombras (Shadows Dance). For the soundtrack, Freire only added Brazilian bands, those being the projects Intuición and Holocausto Cotidiano. “I think these artists translate a lot of the cyberpunk atmosphere of the movie,” says Freire.

Transhumanism as gender emancipation

When asked about how technology, or more specifically transhumanism, could help with the issues addressed in his movie, Freire said that we have been experiencing technology for a long time now and, as much as we have created some dependency, technology can also be a “social actor” that both modifies us and is modified by us. “Technology is an active agent in our lives. We socialize and hybridize with machines,” he says.

The futurist and entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt is the highest-paid female executive in the United States, and she is a trans woman too. However, in an interview with New York Mag, she said she would rather not define herself after existing words, and this is why she prefers using “Pn.,” for “person,” instead of “Mr.” or “Ms..” On the other hand, “trans” is a prefix that she fancies, since it contains her “self-image as an explorer who crosses barriers into strange new lands.” According to the article, Rothblatt sees herself “less a transgender and more as what is known as a transhumanist, a particular kind of futurist who believes that technology can liberate humans from the limits of their biology.”

In fact, Rothblatt has even published a book about this. In From Transgender to Transhuman: A Manifesto On the Freedom Of Form (2011), she discusses the notions of what is male and female, new feminist thinking, sexuality beyond genitals, justice and gender, science and sex, and finally how transhumanism can be the “freedom of form.” As strong as these ideas are, they have also been compiled and turned into a segment of the Transhumanist philosophy, known as “Postgenderism.”

Inspired by Donna Haraway, who is a reference to Freire too, the Canadian futurist George Dvorsky wrote the paper Postgenderism: Beyond the Gender Binary (2008) in partnership with James Hughes, professor at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut. According to them, Postgenderism is “an extrapolation of ways that technology is eroding the biological, psychological and social role of gender, and an argument for why the erosion of binary gender will be liberatory.”

The philosophical movement argues that gender is an “arbitrary and unnecessary limitation on human potential,” and technology could be useful to eliminate some of these barriers with the help of assisted reproduction, greater biological fluidity, and psychological androgyny that would “allow future persons to explore both masculine and feminine aspects of personality.” In this sense, Postgenderism defends a future in which bodies and personalities will “no longer be constrained and circumscribed by gendered traits, but enriched by the use in the palette of diverse self-expression,” provided by advanced technology.

During CryptoRave, an event about hacker culture that took place in São Paulo this year, several women were invited to discuss visibility and vigilance over the feminine virtual bodies in a conversation circle. Fernanda Meistache is a 30-year-old trans woman who took part in the panel. She exposed her idea of transhumanism as a means to empower transgender people or, in fact, how transcending the definition of humanity could play an important role in the fight against oppression and prejudice. Similarly to Rothblatt, Meistache thinks that transhumanism could be “an instrument to question our own human patterns,” and that this could help us surpassing “real harmful constructions.”

According to Meistache, “technology is already way more inserted in trans/pangender issues than it is actually credited.” Instead of considering complex techniques like those proposed by Postgenderism, Meistache sees the internet as a technology that has been helping transgender people to be redefined and seen in different ways. “In early 2000s, the image Brazil had of transgender people and transvestites wasn’t even awful. It was sparse,” she explains. “It was relegated to prostitution, porn industry, entertainment and very, very few successful cases that were still taken only for amusement purposes and as a beauty examples, like Roberta Close.” She recalls when she first read about the composer Wendy Carlos in a music magazine, and how society denied femininity from AMAB (assigned male at birth) people. “Even when the intention was only artistic, it was already labeled as ‘faggotry’.”

Meistache’s statement thus reinforces Janaína’s role in Freire’s short movie. It describes a universe where transgender people and transvestites are inaugurated in Brazil, and how technology could make them reach another level of existence — whether that’s the transcendence of cyberspace or the enlightenment by the means of the internet. Meistache mentions that, before the internet, people who didn’t manage to go through transition could only have access to such information with “partially visible transgender people that were, sadly and mostly, prostitutes.” She claims that the internet has magnified the range and the strength of information and opinions, besides helping with the amplification of the notion of gender. “It’s very different to say that our genders are a misconception or that they can be built over the internet, as some trans exclusionary people argue,” she says. “[On the internet,] we can explore ourselves before exposing it to society. We can interact with other people, either when we play videogames or try to subvert the negative, fetishist self-image of ourselves, or when we try to bring control back to our own attractiveness and desire, and even when most of us still depend and live out of the sex industry.”

After the boom caused by the science-fiction TV series Sense8 (2015), in which sexuality is explored with the help of Jamie Clayton, a trans actress, Janaína Overdrive comes as a work that both depicts a regional (but still global) situation and questions how technology can be a fierce tool to transgender people, even when they are still inserted in a context of prostitution. By assigning a trans woman to a leading role, as a heroine, Freire has given visibility and representation to them while using a subgenre that supports rebellion and deconstruction as a means to empower people. Hopefully, the short movie will be accepted by international festivals to which Freire has sent it, and in the near future it will be screened worldwide too.

Originally published on Versions in 2016.

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