“I don’t even know what transsexual means sometimes, nor am I interested in knowing,” says Soraya, the oldest person profiled in “Mala Mala,” a film about the transgender community in Puerto Rico, and she’s hardly alone. As first-time feature filmmakers Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles talk to 12 people who have transformed themselves into the opposite gender to varying degrees, whether it’s simply appearing in drag at a nightclub called The Doll House or undergoing sexual reassignment surgery, a picture emerges of a group that cannot be classified partly because of the ways they individually reached their current state and partly because they refuse to be.
While that’s a point of pride for a community that prizes uniqueness, it has also made it incredibly difficult to organize a support system that can tend to those struggling with their personal transition and fight for their rights politically. Although this may all be common knowledge for the audience most likely to see “Mala Mala,” Santini and Sickles bring the situation to life vividly, as ready to bask in the bright fluorescent lights of Puerto Rican nightlife as they are to spend time in a lonely apartment as a woman who binds her breasts up to become a man spends hours on Google looking for help. The contrast illuminates the culture, which inherently deals with the dilemma of being true to oneself underneath a skin different than the one they were born into.
Santini and Sickles cast a sympathetic eye upon such subjects as Sandy, a young prostitute who isn’t likely to escape her profession with the $40 she collects for random sex acts, or Sophia, a middle-aged New Yorker who moved to Puerto Rico with the promise she would find men attracted to her, or Alberic, a flamboyant drag queen by night obsessed with Regina George from “Mean Girls.” The mix ably reflects the diversity of personalities within the community, but also proves to be a bit unwieldy for the 89-minute runtime of “Mala Mala,” which could probably benefit from some editorial rejiggering to put its characters into the proper context rather than shuffling about from one to the next. (Finding a character primer online afterwards was more helpful than it should’ve been.)
Still, the narrative thrust of “Mala Mala” becomes clearer when Sandy helps to form an activist collective called the Butterfly Trans Foundation, an organization so symbiotic the group is debating whether to call it the Trans or Butterfly Foundation shortly before appearing on camera to film a video. However, the group is focused when it comes to a common goal – pushing forward Bill 238, a proposal making its way through Puerto Rico’s legislation that it would be illegal for employers to discriminate based on gender or sexual preference. Not only does the progress of the bill provide a compelling third act, but it shows the complexities of the transgender community’s issues moving forward.
Yet as much as “Mala Mala” is about the transgendered carving out a place for themselves in society, the film is also a celebration of what makes them different. Cinematographer Adam Uhl is not one to shy away from bold color schemes and the film’s subjects are as open to showing off in nightclubs as they are in revealing their personal lives. For all the danger that seemingly lurks in the night sky in Santuree, Puerto Rico when we’re first introduced to a woman passing out condoms in the streets to those who can’t afford the protection in the film’s opening minutes, Santini and Sickles find the light peeking through.
“Mala Mala” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It plays at the Tribeca Film Fest three more times on April 21st at 9 pm at the AMC Loews Village 7 and April 23rd and 26th at 3:30 pm and 7 pm, respectively, at the Bow Tie Cinemas Chelsea.