Mala Mala just had its premiere at Tribeca this week. The documentary is the story of 11 people in Puerto Rico who happen to have a wide-range of gender expression. There’s Ivana, a transgender woman who is an activist and a leader for the women. There’s Sandy, a transgender woman who hasn’t completed her transition because of her job as a sex worker. There’s Pax, a transgender man who can’t find testosterone treatments on the island. And there’s the group of women at The Doll House, a drag house that included April Carrion, who competed on Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
On paper, following 11 characters with a wide range of gender expression sounds difficult, but Mala Mala makes it feel like a road trip throughout Puerto Rico. The film is careful to not sensationalize its subjects and their actions, and comes at an important moment for the transgender community, which is slow to gain the social and political rights that the other members of the LGBT community have.
Fusion sat down with the directors of the film, Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, to talk about the film.
How did the idea for the film come about?
Santini: Three years ago, Dan and I went down to Austin, Texas for a film festival and we met this woman Maggie one night at a bar. She was performing drag and we were hanging out and the next day we went to her house. And when we went to her house, she wasn’t in drag, and we learned that she just started to transition. We realized that there were just a lot of consequences to this decision that she had made to change her gender. So that’s when we learned about this topic intimately up close and decided that this was something that we wanted to keep exploring.
There are so many characters in the film, and you could have gone a different route such as focusing on one character. How did you decide that was the best way to approach the film?
Sickles: We definitely thought about the potential of the film in a lot of different ways. But when you’re talking about something like gender, and when we’re talking about something very complicated and often uninvestigated. I think to be more inclusive, we were like let’s get as many voices as we can, to talk about this theme and to pick it apart and to express how they feel about it. You know, use your words to educate us.
Santini: I think the editing follows pretty closely, our trip. It was like a road trip and we were just driving around the island, going to people’s homes and sitting and talking to them. And then at the end, the political aspect of it took off. And that also happens at the end of the movie. And so the movie shows how organic it was. We started to meet them individually and then we started to see the bigger picture and that community’s context in terms of the whole island.
The movie is about gender, but it’s also about how the way that you think of yourself and what you see in the mirror don’t match up.
Sickles: Exactly. There are things that we’re all trying to achieve. Sometimes we look in the mirror and it’s like ok this is what I’d like to fix about myself, like oh I want to cut my hair. And then there are things in terms of career and familial aspirations, and we attach those things to ourselves. So I think that’s the universal theme, it’s about desire and working toward who you want to be and who you are.
The film covered such a broad range of sexuality and gender, it felt like it didn’t need to be set in Puerto Rico, yet Puerto Rico provided a great context for the film. How did you decide to set the film there?
Sickles: As a citizen of Puerto Rico, you’re put in a pretty difficult decision. Basically you’re living in like a colony, which is crazy for your cultural identity, to not have a secure sense of self in terms of your national identity. And I think that that is similar in some sense to the experience of transitioning, in the sense that you’re kind of bordering multiple categorical identifiers. It’s like, am I American? Am I Puerto Rican? Am I both? Am I neither? Am I a man? Am I a woman? Am I both? Am I neither? Am I all of those? It was like looking at this small community that was totally underrepresented, being Puerto Rico, and then going even further than that, and looking at a community that’s underrepresented in Puerto Rico and the world.
Santini: You know, there’s no Hollywood in Puerto Rico. There is no big film industry. It’s an island that constantly consumes media from other countries, but it rarely produces media and exports it out to the end of the world. It was very exciting, as a Puerto Rican, to know that we could start to create a language and an identity to start talking about one another.
Have you discussed continuing following these characters or this story?
Sickles: Yeah, we have. This for us is the very tip of the Mala Mala iceberg. We’ve gotten to a place now where we love the people who are in the movie; like they’re family. And it’s like, now that we all are friends and like each other, let’s keep doing awesome stuff that pushes boundaries and bridges gaps and also brings attention to things that need tending to.
Santini: There are shows like drag race, which are important, but we feel like we also need a different kind of TV show that offers a different kind of perspective, that isn’t just just a contest so we can keep sharing these stories. Because these are just 11 stories; we met what like 300 people. I think we’ve sort of considered some platform that would allow us to consider sharing these stories.