Meet Emerson Pontes as Uýra Sodoma, the spirit through which they share their environmental advocacy.
(Still from Uýra: The Rising Forest)

Redefining Gender in the Amazon

As we celebrate Pride, The Frontline shares the work of Uýra Sodoma, an Indigenous nonbinary performance artist who is dedicated to saving the Brazilian Amazon.

Within minutes of first seeing Uýra Sodoma on screen, she’s poison dart frog yellow, save for two black eyes. Her whole body is painted—head to toes to fingertips—and she’s crawling, fluidly shifting her weight in a movement that rustles the fronds around her neck and lifts the leaves sprouting from the top of her head. She backs up, and the world gets quiet, making way for a sharp animalistic hiss and a tumbling wave of thunder. She rises, responding to her environment first, then to the sound of her name. 

 

This is the second scene in Uýra: The Rising Forest, a new documentary that debuted at the Frameline Film Festival—the world’s largest LGBTQIA+ film festival—in the San Francisco Bay Area last week. It is a documentary in the sense that it centers on the real life of a real person, but its structure is loose and impressionistic, trying to submerge you in Uýra’s world rather than explain it to you. That’s largely because its focus is so fluid: Uýra is the spirit that moves through trans nonbinary educator, activist, and biologist Emerson Pontes.

 

Pontes responds to both Emerson and Uýra, acknowledging Uýra as a presence who has always been with them. Pontes flows between they/them and she/her pronouns, speaking as both Uýra and themself. Uýra speaks through Pontes because she has something important to say: the forests that birthed her, the wide and riotous Amazon, are dying and must be saved. Her performances—the bright paint, the draped-on moss—are part of her teaching practice that aims to reconnect people to themselves and to the land.

In one of the film’s opening scenes, Uýra performs alone in the dark.
(Still from Uýra: The Rising Forest)

Her lessons take many forms. Sometimes, she’ll dress in an elaborate costume and position herself in a trash-filled creek in her home city of Manaus, shouting up to passersby on the bridge about the dangers of pollution. Other times, she’ll gather kids around in a circle—made-up or bare-faced—to teach them about the health of the water or the spirit guardians of the trees. In one scene in the film, she helps children put on a play about the forest.

 

“All collective experiences are educational experiences,” Pontes said, speaking in Portuguese with producer João Henrique Kurtz translating. “The dirt, the river, people sitting around me. That’s the place that inspires me: these huge circles, these huge communities.”

 

Brazil, where Pontes has spent their whole life, is a dangerous place to be a trans environmental educator. In 2021, it led the world in number of trans people murdered and came in third in number of activists killed. Brazil’s president, far-right Jair Bolsonaro, has only made things worse: he is vocally homophobic and has brought the Amazon Rainforest to the brink of collapse by enacting policies that prioritize business over conservation and Indigenous rights. Deforestation has skyrocketed under his leadership: Brazil lost over 3.7 million acres of primary forest in 2021 alone—over 40% of all tropical forest loss last year

 

Bolsonaro is up for re-election in October, which is part of the reason São Paulo-born director Juliana Curi wanted to get this film out now. The issues facing Brazil—homophobia, transphobia, environmental destruction, Indigenous erasure—are often treated as separate beasts. Before working on this film, Curi herself was focused mainly on feminism and gender, giving less attention to the land until Uýra opened her eyes. 

 

“When I met Uýra, I realized she connects all causes in one single struggle, which is the preservation of life,” Curi said. 

Curi met Uýra on Instagram in 2019 and, within 3 weeks, decided to make a documentary about her. She didn’t even wait to apply for grants or search for co-producers. With only a small amount fundraised, she, the writer, and the producer flew from Brooklyn to the Amazon. 

 

“We didn’t know why we had this sense of urgency to tell this story,” Curi said. “Then, when we returned from the Amazon in February of 2020, the first cases of COVID started to appear there. It became clear that this was the only window we had to shoot this story.”

 

Uýra, though being the subject of the documentary, had a hand in crafting it, too. She helped write the script and steer the storytelling, dismantling the normal divisions between subject and object. This fits into a larger project of self-determination: Uýra has, for many years, been called a drag queen. But all categorizing terms—drag queen, activist, scientist, educator—feel too tight to quite fit Uýra. After all, she is living in the world not only as it is but as she is imagining it. Uýra is not a character or an alter-ego.

 

“It’s an old spirit that has followed me for a very long time,” Pontes said. “She is my grandmother speaking to me in my ear all the time.”

 

Though she does not call herself a drag queen anymore, she still accepts the term. What she’s doing is a form of drag—if very different from the wigs and gowns of the ballroom floor. North American drag culture arrived in Brazil 100 years ago, she said, and has been transformed and reimagined in communities across the country. This process fascinated Pontes: transforming the art of transformation. Some in Brazil kept the exaggerated femininity of much of U.S. drag culture; others transformed into demons, monsters, and even markets, adorning themselves in items sold on the streets. On Uýra’s part, she couldn’t access fancy wigs or shiny thigh-high boots. Instead, she collected material from the forest for her metamorphosis—becoming not a woman, but a plant.

Here is Uýra in mid-performance. (Still from Uýra: The Rising Forest)

Though Uýra does not have a specific gender (“What is the gender of a tree?” she asks, laughing), she helped Pontes loosen their conception of gender. Pontes’s Indigenous peoples, they said, never had a problem with gender and sexuality. The gender binary—and the shame and pain associated with deviating from it—is an imposed concept, not an Indigenous one. 

 

“Uýra loosened me and allowed me to see myself in front of a mirror as an original person who does not need to let my spirit be infected again,” they said, pointing to how long it took them to understand and accept themselves as trans nonbinary. 

 

Mostly, Uýra accepts the term drag queen because drag is an important bridge of communication with the queer community. Pontes (whose last name means “bridges” in Portuguese) loves the imagery of such a structure. It’s a place where you can stand in the middle and see two connected worlds—something she does all the time. 

 

The Frameline Film Festival was a perfect chance to connect worlds: bringing stories from the Amazon to an international queer community. But after traveling across continents to get there, Uýra was frustrated to find that she couldn’t understand anything at the opening ceremony. It was all in English with no simultaneous translation. The queer community is incredibly diverse, and Uýra believes in making the circle as wide as possible.

During the film’s tour in the Brazilian Amazon, Uýra led metamorphosis workshops for attendees. (Photograph Courtesy of Mitch Swan)

This focus on inclusion is, in large part, why Pontes left academia to teach on the street and in the forests. They were on their way to getting their doctorate in biology to teach in classrooms when they realized they couldn’t reach everyone they wanted to. In Brazil, so few people have access to universities: only around 20% of people have anything beyond a high school diploma, and less than 1% have a master’s degree or equivalent. Cut off from their culture and ancient knowledge by colonialism, many Brazilians don’t get the chance to learn about the forests they live in and around. Pontes went as far as a master’s in biology, but even they cannot reconstruct the knowledge that was taken from them: they don’t know the tribe they came from. Pontes’s own learning is always reciprocal, feeding their educational work through Uýra. 

 

Before traveling to San Francisco for the Frameline Festival, the team debuted Uýra: The Rising Forest in the Brazilian Amazon. Uýra held metamorphosis workshops, guiding others as they painted their faces and fastened plants to their shoulders. This mimics a scene from the film, in which Uýra walks into the forest with queer youth from Manaus to teach them her art of transformation. 

 

She calls these groups of young people—herself included—pioneer species. The idea comes from the concept of ecological succession: after a disturbance to the land, there are certain species that always crop up first, making way for life to follow. They reconstruct the soil, clear out toxins, form a network of connections, and shield others from storms. Same, too, with activist movements. There must always be the first ones, the brave ones, the young ones. They root—and, around them, a forest grows.

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