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The film project Transfiction was initated by Johannes Sj÷berg as part of a practice-based PhD in Drama of at the University of Manchester. The project has developed beyond the PhD practice into the two films Drama Queens and Rome, Open Salon, that will be released as part of the screen practice as research initiatives at the Centre for Screen Studies.

Transfiction is an ethnofiction based on fifteen months of ethnographic fieldwork. Ethnofiction is an experimental ethnographic film genre, used as an alternative approach to anthropological research and representation. The informants of the ethnographic fieldwork act out their cultural knowledge in improvisations in front of the camera, revealing aspects of the culture that would be hard to find and represent using traditional anthropological research.

transfiction film still

Transfiction (Photo: Brochu 2006)

During the production of Transfiction, Fabia Mirassos and Savana ’Bibi’ Meirelles and other travestis and male-female transsexuals, used the improvisations to express their view on transgender identity and discrimination in São Paulo.


Though Transfiction is a fiction film, it is made as an ethnographic documentary where story and dialogue are created in the moment. Direction and camerawork are improvised and documentary rushes are used as a complement to the fictive scenes in the film.

The origin of ethnofictions can be traced to the films of the documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty’s films from the 20s and the 30s in which he used a ’slight narrative’ to represent other cultures. The French term ‘etnofiction’ was first coined by film critics writing about the ethnographic films made in West Africa from the 50s and onwards, by the visual anthropologist Jean Rouch. Rouch drew heavily on Robert Flaherty’s, and Dziga Vertov’s work as well as surrealist ideas, and his films would have a great influence on the future development of documentary and narrative filmmaking.

The following five principles characterises the ethnofictions of Jean Rouch and guided me through the production of Transfiction:

Ethnographic Filmmaking

An approach typical of ethnographic filmmaking has been used when making Transfiction. The film is based on an extended period of ethnographic fieldwork and has been made by a small camera team to reach a high level of intimacy with the protagonists.

Improvisational Cinema

The direction and cinematography of Transfiction have been inspired by Cinéma Vérité, a film style typical for the ethnographic documentary films of Jean Rouch. For Rouch, the process of filmmaking was a ’cine-trance’ where he no longer made any difference between the camera, himself and his environment. The film is improvised; 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 the Arctic explorer ship on which 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, provoking dialogues and actions that otherwise would be hard to reveal.

Improvised Acting

The protagonists of Transfiction 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 and impressions from their environment. Rouch’s ethnofictions were not limited by reality, but inspired by the surrealist and poetic view that was typical of all his productions. Rouch compared these improvisations with psychodrama - by projecting their experiences through fiction and drama, the protagonists revealed cultural aspects as a part of the ethnographic research project.

Shared anthropology

Transfiction has been created in a collaborative spirit between the ethnographic filmmaker and the protagonists. They participate actively in creation of the film by suggesting their own ideas. Informant feedback improves the ethical approach and provides a second opinion on the findings of the ethnographic research. Rouch often screened a rough-cut of his films to the informants to receive feedback and the protagonists sometimes improvised the narration to the film rushes during the final stage of the production.


Rouch pioneered self-reflexivity in documentary filmmaking. He often participated in his own films in dialogue with the protagonists, who sometimes were given the opportunity to participate in the film with their own critique. This is why Transfiction was filmed with a second camera to reveal a reflexive dialogue between filmmaker and protagonist.

drama queens film still

Drama Queens (Photo: Brochu 2006)

The ethnographic documentary Drama Queens was filmed during six months in 2005 and 2006 and focuses on the life of the two transsexual actresses Savana ’Bibi’ Meirelles and Fabia Mirassos at Os Satyros (The Satyrs), a theatre in central São Paulo, Brazil. The theatre is run by Rodolfo García Vázquez and Ivam Cabral. Os Satyros is famous for involving the theatre's environment in the plays. The transgendered community plays an important part of the life at Roosevelt Square where the theatre is located. Drama Queens shows Bibi's and Fabia's life on and off stage.

Bibi and Fabia represent two very different periods in the development of transgendered culture in São Paulo. Bibi, 36 years old, has experience of a period of fear of AIDS and violence in São Paulo during the 1980s and the beginning of the 90s, and a dawning resistance against discrimination among transsexuals and travestis in Brazil towards the end of the 90s. Fabia, on the other hand, is 25 years old. She is a modern transsexual, with her own hairdressing salon in Cotia, a suburb of São Paulo.


Theatre Os Satyros at Praça Roosevelt in the old city centre in São Paulo.
(Collage images: fotosedm.hpg.ig.com.br, satyros.com.br, wikimedia.org)

Drama Queens is an introduction to Transfiction, and the practice as research outcomes of the ethnographic documentary Drama Queens can be summarised in three points. Drama Queens...

… established the fieldwork. The production of the documentary provided a chance to find the protagonists for the Transfiction, and cultivate a friendship based on mutual trust.

… provided a platform for the ethnographic research. The documentary became a tool of ethnographic research when exploring transgendered performance in São Paulo.

… became a reference point for the ethnofiction. Comparing the working process of the documentary with the ethnofiction gave me a practice-based perspective on the approach of the ethnofiction.

Drama Queens

The documentary is currently in postproduction. The nine minutes long video clip above shows four samples from the documentary:

The Pride Parade in São Paulo is the biggest gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual and travesti parade in Latin America.

Savana ’Bibi’ Meirelles votes in a referendum concerning disarmament in Brazil.

Fabia Mirassos visits a beauty clinic to remove her facial hair with laser.

Phedra D Córdoba, Fabia’s and Bibi’s friend and colleague, performs at Os Satyros.

drama queens film still

Drama Queens (Photo: Sjöberg 2004)

In Rome, Open Salon, filmed during the summer of 2006, the transsexuals and travestis Glads, Barbara, Flavia, Alcione and Fernanda, meet in the hairdressing salon Roma to have their hair cut. They discuss their different experiences of being transsexual and travesti in São Paulo. The protagonists of Rome, Open Salon represent very different aspects of transsexual and travesti culture in São Paulo. Some of them are married and live middleclass lives, others are poor and earn their living through prostitution, and a few of them have gained success as stage artists in the show business of São Paulo.

Rome, Open Salon

Rome, Open Salon (Photo: Brochu 2006)

Fabia stands at the centre of the story as her therapeutic presence as a hairdresser makes her customers reveal their views on transgender identity and discrimination. As the title suggests, the film is inspired by the Italian Neorealist use of documentary film techniques to produce dramas with a political content, which is why Rome, Open Salon gives examples of transsexuals and travestis fighting against intolerance in Brazilian society. As the dialogues in the hairdressing salon evolve, we see Rubia, Camilla, Michelle and Natasha re-enact their lives as travestis in São Paulo.

Rome, Open Salon is currently in postproduction.

Further Information: Johannes Sjoberg

Screen Studies