As a boy growing up in Brazil in the 1990s, queer artist Kris Barz Mendonça struggled to find his way in a culture that required boys and men to eschew anything even remotely “feminine.”
That meant no dolls, no dresses and no dancing.
“I was always different, I was always nonconforming, even before I was out,” Mendonça said. “It was a long process coming out and accepting myself.”
Now it’s not just about accepting but celebrating, whether it’s through his graphic illustrations, his drag persona Krisa Gonna or his film, “From Shame to Pride.”
In the animated short, screening at Colorado State University’s 7th annual ACT Human Rights Film Festival on April 1, Mendonça goes back to those early years in Brazil, when a family outing and a corn field provided a rare opportunity to break free.
“The way that I tell the story creates this allegory about the book of rules on ‘how to be a man,’” he said. “And it’s so destructive because it prevents boys and men from sharing their feelings, it prevents them from being who they are.”
We spoke with Mendonça, now based in Fort Collins, to find out more about the film and his art.
SOURCE: While this film examines queer identity as well as issues of homophobia and toxic masculinity, the story centers on this one particular day in your life.
Mendonça: The movie is basically a memoir of a very specific moment from my childhood. I grew up with a father in the army and was always moving around a lot. My family was very conservative, and I was not allowed to be queer. The culture in Brazil is very misogynistic, and misogyny is basically one of the sources for homophobia because anything that is perceived as feminine is not perceived to be good, especially for young boys. But that idea of “feminine” or “masculine” doesn’t quite exist. They’re just behaviors, just clothes, just ways of speaking, ways of walking.
Because I was a boy, I was not allowed to play with certain things, including dolls. And I really wanted to play with everything because I just wanted to explore all the possibilities because that’s what kids want to do; they want to explore. But there are so many barriers created by society or by parents or by the surroundings. My father would go skydiving with his friends on the outskirts of the city where there were fields of soy and corn, and we would all go there to have a picnic and watch him.
Once when my father was up in the air, my cousin – who was also queer and from a conservative family – and I went to the cornfields to play. If you’ve seen that greenish corn before it’s ripe it has this big hair, like a doll. We would go a little bit away from our families and open the leaves and turn that into the dresses and the pink strings would be the hair. But from afar, no one could tell. So, it was the perfect way to play dolls and not be reprimanded. That afternoon, we were the happiest little queer boys in the world, and then afterwards, we went back to our limited lives.
You work in a lot of different creative mediums – from graphic design to comic book illustrations to drag performance. This film actually began as a comic book. Can you tell me a little bit about its inspiration and evolution?
This project started when (Brazilian President Jair) Bolsonaro was elected in 2018. The current president is very right wing, homophobic and misogynistic. I was approached by an artist in Brazil who was putting together a collection of short stories from many different artists, mostly queer artists, as a response to Bolsonaro being elected, and he invited me to submit a work. I had this idea of creating a four-page comic talking about what it was like to grow up in Brazil as a queer person in the ’90s with a very conservative father in the army, who is also like a very big supporter of the current president. The book never came out but later I was invited to do a TEDx Talk. I had just started doing drag and I decided to have a sort of drag debut as part of my talk. I told this story using images in the slides from the comic and animating them.
Then last May, I talked to a friend, Baboo Matsusaki, who owns the animation company Hilda Motion and is the director of the movie, about a Brazilian queer movie festival. I’d hired them before to do a little series for my YouTube channel turning Krisa Gonna into a drag superhero, because I love superheroes and comics. We decided to turn this comic into an animated short. We did it in like three months. It’s a project that changed a lot over time – going from a comic to a talk to an animated movie.
In the film, you talk about how art saved you at a challenging time, but was it difficult creating a film based on those personal experiences?
I think talking to my parents about it was the only real challenge because I didn’t know how they would take it. My parents have watched the TEDx Talk. I wanted them to watch it because when I was younger – and I think this happens to a lot of queer people in which the easiest thing is to demonize your parents. My parents made a lot of mistakes with the things that they did, the things that were passed on to them by their parents. For many years, I had this feeling that it was not fair what happened to me, and I still think it wasn’t. But what I also tried to talk about in the movie is how these gender expectations and heteronormativity also hurt them as well since they were born into it, as well. I look at them now with a lot more empathy.
Many of your projects center around your own experiences and your queer identity. What do you hope audiences get from your work?
It’s hard not to have things relate to my queer identity, especially because my queer identity was attached to me by others before I even knew what queer was. As the movie talks about, even my drag name comes from being bullied. I’ve reappropriated a lot of those things, and I turn them into something different, something that can be celebrated, that can be empowering.
That’s basically what I want for anything that I do – not only the drag part, but everything that I do. I think the message I’m trying to make is that a lot of things that people might tell you that you should be ashamed of or that you should hide, eventually you realize that those are the best things about you. That’s what makes you really unique, whether that’s being queer or any other characteristic. At least that’s what I’ve learned over time. So, I try to be the person that I didn’t have. I didn’t have someone to look to who would say that it’s amazing to be myself or even that it’s just OK.
“From Shame to Pride” will be shown at 7 p.m. April 1, at The Lyric. The in-person festival runs from March 31-April 3 with virtual screenings of some films available from April 4-10. More information, including a full screening schedule, can be found on the ACT Human Rights Film Festival website.