Tribeca Film Festival: Set in the vibrant, culturally diverse state of Puerto Rico, Mala Mala documents both the celebration of the trans community, while shining light on the stigma and lack of employment opportunities for many of its members.
The film opens much like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). An enigmatic driver cruises down the dark streets of Santuree, neon credits appearing and fading on screen, while a catchy techno beat plays on. Only, these streets are filled with sex workers, and the driver, a trans woman, is handing out condoms.
First-time directors Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles capture the ostentatious, glitzy shows of The Doll House, a popular drag house in Puerto Rico, and its passionately-motivated performers. We see their fastidious rituals and preparation before a show from make-up, hair, padding and tucking. But Santini and Sickles don’t just put on a drag show for audiences, they pull back the curtain to reveal the plight and inequality of the trans community and explore the complexities of some of the members of the LGBTT community.
From Alberic, the Regina George-infatuated member of the Dollhouse, to Paxx, a trans male who struggles to find the means to a sex-change operation, Mala Mala documents the many faces of the Trans community and, for some of them, their struggles with labels and self-image. For some of the film’s subjects, the facade isn’t enough. Those with gender dysphoria want the operation that will transform them to the gender they associate with. Others want just cosmetic surgery to look more convincing.
Some of these trans people turn to prostitution, forced into unemployment, due to the state’s pious and homophobic laws. We witness the grassroots movement of the Butterfly Trans Foundation, Inc., founded by trans members, from their urge of support during TV appearances, to their march on the capitol, all the way to candid testimony on Bill 238 – a bill that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.
Mala Mala excels at extending one’s definition of transexual and transgender people, by introducing one to the multifaceted lives and nebulous sexual labels of some of these men and women. The zeitgeist has many convinced that the image of the trans community is defined by programs such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, hosted by the world’s most famous Drag Queen, and other media projections. That’s certainly the case for April, a Doll House member, who aspires to compete on series, but for others, such as Soraya, a woman who was born a man with gender dysphoria, that’s not enough. Soraya states, “Being a woman is in your heart and soul. It’s one thing to feel like a woman and another to feel like a beauty queen. They are two very different things.”
When the film isn’t focusing on political reform and directing social attitudes in new trajectories, its celebrating the essence of life and the unification of mind and body. It offers viewers painful anecdotes and testimony of what happens when the harmony of mind and body is interrupted or unable to link. And, at the same time, viewers begin to see the many forms, faces and figures of trans men and women as an externalization of the beauty inside them. As one of the film’s subjects states, “The outside of my body might say something, but the inside of my soul is a female. You are your essence.”