Mala Mala, a bold new documentary about Puerto Rico’s diverse trans scene, received a standing ovation after its world premiere last night at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, where it’s one of just 12 films competing in this year’s World Documentary Competition.
The doc stars P.R.’s most visible trans activist, Ivana Fred, and star of season six of RuPaul’s Drag Race April Carrión, who at the premiere wore a beautiful black gown emblazoned with the film’s credits down the back.
Funded partly by Kickstarter, Mala Mala was three years in the making, and brings together very different stories — from Sandy, an unapologetic sex worker in San Juan’s rough La 15 neighborhood, to Paxx, a brave young trans man with no apparent local support system. At turns tender, funny, raw and gorgeous, the film also covers a profound moment in local LGBT history: last year’s passage of Senate Bill 238, which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“The bill really just came up during the last eight months of production,” director Dan Sickles said. “We got a call from Ivana one day saying like, ‘Oh hey, we’re going to the Senate to fight for our rights.’ We’re like, ‘What? Okay, so we need to be there.’ So we were lucky enough to follow it along, and to see it passed into law was golden for us.”
“They themselves have opened up to possibilities of how they can collaborate in their community,” co-director Antonio Santini adds.
Gender identity is not something filmmakers Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles struggle with on a daily basis. However, the fight for the right to define oneself despite nature captivated the young artists enough to take them on a three-year journey to shed a much-needed light on the transgender community in Puerto Rico.
The movie's cast at the Tribeca premiere
It was at a film festival in Austin, Texas, after a few drinks, where Santini and Sickle met the drag queen that would change the course of their careers. She took them home and showed the young men her world and the hardship she faced on a daily basis. "She was so honest and transparent, and all of a sudden we were having this conversation about gender and identity and how it relates to sexuality," Sickles says.
Santini was born and grew up in San Juan, and he reconnected with on Facebook with April Carrión, a high school classmate. Slowly the two accumulated their diverse and captivating subjects. From the empowered trans rights fighter who drives the streets handing out condoms and lubricant to the sex workers, most of whom she calls her friends. Then there is older woman who refuses to consider herself as trans: She had the surgery and is now a woman. The most absorbing subject has to be Samantha, a striking yet timid person who faces the world with haunting optimism.
The film follows these individuals, documenting their daily lives, and although the narrative begins with a festive spirit—where we meet the fabulous members of the drag houses—gradually grows darker, shedding a refined light on the sex workers in San Juan. Santini and Sickles masterfully create a heartbreaking mood without capitalizing on their subjects’ painful expriences.
When asked about the film’s title, which literally translates as Bad, Bad is also a euphemism for "menstruation," the two men laugh. It is a question, it seems, they face at every interview. Although mala translates as menstruation, “it is really an attitude,” the filmmakers explain. The ladies of the film would say they were "mala" when they were looking really good, or feeling extra feminine.
There is a parallel between the transgender community and Puerto Rican culture as a whole, say the directors. "Puerto Rico has this status where they're tied to the United States," Sickles explains, "Yet, they're working towards articulating their own independent voice so there seem to be a lot of parallels of being super visible but also largely ignored.” Both parties are fighting for a voice.
Carrión was on Drag Race. So what does she think of the recent “she mail” controversy?
“We need to have humor, and we cannot take everything so seriously,” she says. “I mean, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a campy show. It’s a show that makes fun of everything. And that is what drag is. We are men dressed as women doing a show and trying to be all fishy. Like, it’s not serious. But it is what it is, and if somebody is offended by the phrase, then it’s good that there’s respect for that too.”
A little surprising that someone who identifies as a man dressed as a woman is at the center of a transgender documentary - but hey, it's a big community