Glitter, feathers and bright-coloured wigs. On a small Cape Verdean island, Tchinda helps her community prepare for Carnival. Directed by Marc Serena and Pablo García Perez de Lara, this 2016 feature length documentary is both a portrait of the eclectic Tchinda Andrade—one of the island’s first and most beloved transgender women— as well as a musical snapshot of life on the island.
Since her brave coming-out in a 1998 newspaper article, her name has been given to queer and transgender women all over the island. The movie opens on the beach, where Tchinda and her friends enjoy a chat and a game of cards. As the camera closes up on each of their faces, colourful glittery name cards introduce the main characters of the film, the Tchindas: Tchinda Andrade, Edinha Pitanga, and Elvis Tolentino,
Dedicated to the country’s most famous singer, Cesária Évora, this documentary is musical tribute to Cape Verde itself. Beautifully shot sequences, with various local songs as their soundtrack, give the pulse of the island. Different activities that mark out the daily rhythm of life in São Vincente— a man runs along the beach, children sing and dance on the street, and a monkey drinks water out of a plastic bottle— are set to songs with lyrics such as ‘This is Cape Verde my beloved land,’ and ‘Cape Verde is our favourite corner,’ to paint an idyllic portrait of island life.
Interlaced with these musical interludes Tchindas depicts the road to Carnival. Throughout the film, we follow the three women as they sew costumes, choreograph dances and supervise the building of a float, in preparation for the celebrations in February. Taking orders from women all over the island, Tchinda, Edinha and Elvis cut out patterns, sew costumes and make alterations. The film also gives a glimpse into the private lives of the three women as they get dressed in the morning, attend family gatherings and hang out with friends.
Unusual in a documentary film, the editing of Tchindas consists of very fast cutting, with some shots lasting under 10 seconds (and sometimes even as little as 2 seconds). In many scenes, this erratic hopscotching between shots distracts from the story on-screen: drawing attention to the filmmaking process itself, and creating distance between the viewer and the unfolding scene between the Tchindas.
Like the editing, the narrative thread of the film also quickly glosses over important scenes with its main characters. Towards the end of the film, is a scene in which Elvis reads the original 1998 article about Tchinda out loud to the group, as they make their final arrangements for Carnival. It seems like the film is finally about to delve into the heart of her experience as a trans woman, when Tchinda says, ‘Oh Lord! If you only knew Elvis, back then all homosexuals were in the closet.’ However just then, there is another jolting cut and we jump to a moment much later on, as the women glitter up and prepare to hit the streets in their costumes.
Despite its fascinating topic, and riveting characters, Tchinda is frustrating in moments like this, where it stays on the surface of things and fails to get closer to its main characters. Although these women are clearly devoted to their cause and to the Carnival, the film does not do as much as it could have to lay out the stakes and convey why these things are so important to them. The results in a bit of a flat climax. We see them all glammed up and marching with the Carnival parade but those scenes do not quite have their full effect. Though colourful, this final Carnival sequence feels like one that should have been much more powerful dramaturgically, had the film been edited in a way that built up a lot more tension in the days leading up to it.
Written by Nnenna Onuoha
Images: Stills via film website.