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transfiction

Transfiction (Sjöberg 2007; Photo: Brochu 2006)

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Transfiction is the working title for a film featuring a group of Brazilian transsexuals and travestis living in São Paulo, and is being filmed between April and September 2006.

The film is a part of a practise-based PhD in applied drama and ethnographic filmmaking at the University of Manchester, UK, called ‘Ethnofiction: genre hybridity in theory and practice-based research’

Director, Cameraman and Researcher: Johannes Sjöberg

Sound, Camera and Directing Assistance: Renato Morita

Research Assistance: Dinah Feldman

The ethnofiction is an experimental ethnographic film genre, used as a method for anthropological research and representation. The informants of the ethnographic fieldwork act out their cultural experience in improvisations in front of the camera. These improvisations might reveal cultural aspects that would be hard to find using traditional anthropological research.

Also direction and camerawork are improvised. Though the film is a fiction, it is made as an ethnographic documentary film where story and dialogue are created in the moment. Documentary rushes will be used as a complement to the fictive scenes of the film.

The ethnofiction originates from the documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty’s films from the 20’ and the 30’. But the French term ‘etnofiction’ was first used by film critics writing about the ethnographic films made in West Africa from the 50’ and onward, by the visual anthropologist Jean Rouch. Flaherty and Rouch’s films have had a great importance for the development of documentary as well as narrative filmmaking.

The film Transfiction will be based on a total fifteen months of ethnographic fieldwork. During the production of the film Transfiction transsexuals (males-females) and travestis from the fieldwork in São Paulo, will act out their cultural experiences in front of the camera in improvisations.

Even if all of the protagonists of the ethnofiction can be said to represent transsexual and travesti culture in São Paulo, they have very different backgrounds. Some of them are married and live typical Paulista middleclass lives. Others are poor and earn their living as prostitutes. Some of them have gained success as stage artists in the show business of São Paulo. The film also gives some examples of transsexuals and travestis fighting against intolerance and discrimination in the Brazilian society - which is the main theme of the film.

Transfiction (Sjöberg 2007; Photo: Brochu 2006)

I have defined four principles that I think characterise the ethnofictions of Jean Rouch. These principles also guides me through the production of Transfiction:

· Ethnographic filmmaking
An approach typical of ethnographic filmmaking has been used when making the ethnofiction. The film is based on an extended period of ethnographic fieldwork and has been made by a small camera team in order to reach a high level of intimacy with the protagonists. The filmmaking has been inspired by Cinéma Vèrité, a film genre typical for the ethnographic documentary films of Jean Rouch.

· Improvisational Cinema
Directing and cinematography are improvised and inspired by the approach of Jean Rouch: In dialogue with his environment the ethnographic filmmaker follows his protagonist into a fairly unplanned film production. Rouch called this approach ‘Pourquoi pas?’ (‘Why Not?’) after a ship, an Arctic explorer where his father was the captain. The process of filmmaking was a discovery in itself, where the story was invented as he went along. Rouch also used the camera to create ‘cineprovocations’. The camera became a catalyst that made things happen that would otherwise be hard to reveal. To Jean Rouch, the process of filmmaking was a ’cine-trance’ where he no longer made any difference between the camera, himself and his environment.

· Improvised acting
The protagonists of the ethnofiction act out their cultural knowledge in front of the camera. These improvisations are created along themes dictated by the ethnographic research, and are based on the protagonists' own experiences. They are not limited by reality, but inspired by the surrealist and poetic view that was typical for Rouch and his production. Rouch compared these improvisations with psychodrama - by projecting their experiences through fiction and drama, the protagonists revealed the ‘hidden truths’ of their culture as a part of the ethnographic research project.

· Shared anthropology
The ethnofiction is created in a collaborative spirit between the ethnographic filmmaker and the protagonists. They participate actively in creation of the film by coming with their own ideas and suggestions. Informant feedback secures an ethical approach and guarantees the quality of the ethnographic research. Rouch often participated in his own films, in dialogue with the protagonists. In the final stage of the production, the protagonists sometime improvised the narration to the film rushes. Furthermore, a rough cut of the film was often screened to the protagonists who were given an opportunity to participate in the film with their own critique.