The stunning documentary “Mala Mala” tells the poignant story of the transgender community in Puerto Rico, which is as diverse as it is vibrant. The film features a colorful cast of LGBT advocates, trans business owners, sex workers and drag performers, all of whom face their own challenges. Unapologetic and unconventional, the film explores the contrasts in internal and external identity, weaving its way through the unique stories of an enchanting cast of characters.
When it premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, “Mala Mala” earned rave reviews all across the board, landing it on one of our lists of some of the best documentaries of 2014. The film earned the runner-up spot for the Audience Choice Award, and other festival offers soon poured in: San Diego, Denver, Salt Lake City, Ecuador. But despite its themes of acceptance within a diverse community, “Mala Mala” has been notably ignored by many LGBT film festivals around the globe. It screened at the Austin Gay & Lesbian Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary, and at the Provincetown International Film Festival, which has a high LGBT attendance, but was shut out of larger scale fests like Outfest, NewFest or Out on Film.
We caught up with co-directors Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, a Caribbean-centric fest where the film marked its Caribbean Premiere as an entry from Puerto Rico, to find out why “Mala Mala” was having such a hard time finding not only a place within its own community, but in the U.S. as well.
“We assumed that the LGBT film circuit would be open arms to a project like this,” said co-director Dan Sickles. “Because in a lot of their mission statements they claim to crave diversity in their programming so you think ‘Here’s a film with nine transgender voices and shot in Puerto Rico in 65 percent Spanish, and 35 percent English.’ But that’s not necessarily what a lot of major queer film festivals want, and for us, that’s been a difficult realization.”
Sickles and Santini have come to realize that perhaps they’ve created a difficult film which is now having a slightly difficult time on the festival circuit.
“I cannot ignore the racial component,” Sickles added. “A lot of these film festivals are appealing to a gay, white demographic. Typically they don’t have very many lesbian films, they don’t have many trans films. So when we have the ‘LBGT’ acronym that everyone employs, a lot of the films that are being employed are strictly for the G. Then you have the L and then the B might fit in there some time, and then you have maybe a slot for a trans film.”
The trans-centric film might be a narrative or a documentary, Sickles added, but that most of them focus on Caucasian-American trans-feminine voices. Securing U.S. distribution has also been a challenge. The team signed on with a sales agent before even hearing back from Tribeca, but so far no distribution company has snatched up the film.
“The whole Puerto Rican aspect of it is the huge challenge,” Santini said. “Because to us that was maybe one of the most interesting parts of filming, but when we talk to people who go see it at a festival, the first thing that they see is Puerto Rico and they think ‘Oh, do I even know where Puerto Rico is? Why do I care about Puerto Rico?’ There’s a lack of education in the U.S. about this territory that belongs to the U.S., so that’s a challenge.”
And such is the beauty of what “Mala Mala” successfully does, and why it needs to capture the eyes and ears of Americans through U.S. distribution. Not only is the film an eye-opener to the challenges facing members of the transgender community, but it also reflects a Latino culture that is becoming more and more distinctly American.
But the team isn’t discouraged yet.
“The whole movie was made with the intention of bridging that gap,” Santini said. “This is just the challenge of presenting that. Naturally there is not already a space for it, so we are creating that.”
Memo to U.S. distributors: buy “Mala Mala” now.