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. What came out of this experience was Mala Mala, a documentary film premiering at Tribeca Film Festival this week.
Santini and Sickles met at a party during their days at New York University. One thing led to another and they found themselves at a film festival in Austin, Texas, where, after a few drinks, they 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, explaining that the two committed to study this world further. "It is universally related to human desires, how we all aspire to be certain things in our life, and if there is a road or a way of achieving those goals. They use and employ these methods as a means to achieve those things.”
Sickles and Santini looked at a handful of cities before deciding on Puerto Rico. Santini was born and grew up in San Juan, and he reconnected with a high school classmate on Facebook named April, who became their first subject. “We found this video of her impersonation of Liza Minelli and were blown away,” Santini explains.
Slowly they 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. It culminates with a march on the capital, fighting for a law that would give equal employment rights to the transgender community.
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 fascinating parallel between the transgender community and Puerto Rican culture as a whole, according to the duo. "Puerto Rico has this status where they're tied to the United States," Sickles explains, "Yet, they're working towards articulating they're 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.
Santini's and Sickles’s style is as much a piece of modern investigation as it is a nod to films that came before. There are references to Paris is Burning, Pedro Almodóvar features, Valley of the Dolls, and even ’90s Nickelodeon stylistic choices. The two men hope to make an impact in driving this notoriously ignored issue forward. “I hope that it ignites some kind of conversation just about gender,” Sickles says. “If 20 years from now people look back on our movie and find it archaic then we’ll have succeeded.”
Mala Mala premiered at Tribeca Film Festival April 14 and will play four screenings throughout New York City. Tickets are available at TribecaFilm.com. Watch a teaser clip below: