It’s so difficult for political art to be good art; hard ideologies don’t always translate well to a medium whose purpose it is to trouble assumptions and reveal what’s weird, tender, and worthy of empathy. But if the personal is political, the place where art ends and politics begin must become more liminal. In the documentary Mala Mala, which profiles members of Puerto Rico’s transgender community, that liminal space is their whole lives (as it is for all of us, though that’s less frequently pointed out). We imagine a better future by the choices we make in the present.
Mala Mala translates, twice, to “bad” in the feminine form. Most of the folks featured in this film are feminine-presenting, and they refuse to hear that there’s something wrong with being who they are; in the Puerto Rican queer and drag communities, “mala” is used to mean something closer to “fierce.” How rare and necessary to find a beautifully shot, kind and immersive movie that centers the stories and lives of brown transgender folks. This film does not pander. Rather, it demands that the viewer rise to the occasion.
And what an occasion. Over the course of three years, Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini filmed the daily lives, performances, friendships, and political actions of transgender folks, drag queens, and others living outside the gender binary on the island of Puerto Rico. Their film is a cobble of interviews and sweeping shots: a pulsing city at night, the ocean meeting land. Most powerfully, the filmmakers use long, immersive observation, following their subjects as they sift through the closet for an outfit, drive to the city, walk the streets, or pose for one another in ratty T-shirts. Some, like Ivana, are highly visible activists. Ivana, a trans woman, speaks about gender identity on talk shows, distributes condoms to transgender sex workers, and is the founder of the Butterflies Trans Foundation, through which she raises funds to support the workers in their retirement.
Especially interesting is the implicit conversation between Ivana, who’s probably in her thirties, highly conversant in queer and non-binary terminology, and dresses in body-conscious clothing; and Soraya, one of the few transgender women in Puerto Rico to have successfully changed her gender marker on government identification. Soraya, who looks to be in her fifties, wears dignified, matronly dresses and sun hats, runs a salon, and essentializes womanhood in her speech. Sexually, she says, women ought always to be on the bottom.
Despite Soraya’s unfashionable opinions, it’s important to see where her ideology, but not identity, diverges from younger, hipper, more visible queer discourses. Media coverage of gender, especially non-binary gender, often demands political perfection — but none of us always gets it right. We must have room to be human, to fail.
The admission of humanity is what makes Sandy, a transgender woman and sex worker dating a cisgender man who works as a chef, so compelling. Sandy speaks frankly about her life with great reflectivity, but no self-pity. She talks about needing to look beautiful to do her job, especially because she’s competing with younger women and cis women for clients, while trying to get out of the sex industry. In the meantime she’s organizing for the Butterflies foundation alongside her friend Ivana. The work does not wait for us to get ourselves together.
Not everyone in this film — in this life — has it together. Paxx is a 35-year-old transgender man who’s not out to his parents and has little support in PR, where there’s almost no visibility or information about FTM transitions. But he’s open about his difficult social position, his loving girlfriend, and living with dysphoria. Drag performers like Alberic and Queen Bee discuss inhabiting the space between performance and transition, and the economic realities of drag work, while Samantha struggles with a black-market hormonal transition that made her sick.
Never mind all the talk; Mala Mala is a movie about movement — how a grassroots effort got a bill passed that forbids employment discrimination based on gender or sexuality across Puerto Rico. It’s about how a night at the club, a walk across a stage, a good outfit or friendship or a drive down the coast can free a body, momentarily, from worry, disparity, dysphoria. If the personal is political, of course what’s political lives in our bodies. Of course our bodies can free us from limits we’ve come, somehow, to believe in.
Directed by Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini
Distributed by Killer Films
Opens July 1