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Tribeca Review: Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini’s ‘Mala Mala’ Is a Wonderful Documentary About The Trans Community In Puerto Rico

Tribeca Review: Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini's 'Mala Mala' Is a Wonderful Documentary About The Trans Community In Puerto Rico

“You are your essence,” says Samantha, one of the subjects
of “Mala Mala,” a wonderful documentary about the trans community in Puerto
Rico. Samantha continues to explain that who or what she appears to be on the
outside is not necessarily reflective of who she is on the inside, and adds,
with poignancy and honesty, “I am whoever you want me to be.”

Filmmakers Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini present a largely unseen, often
misunderstood, and marginalized subculture. The portraits showcase each
individual’s humanity and beauty without a sense of exploitation. The activist
Ivana Fred, initially talks about her anatomy, and showing off her beauty, but
she is a key advocate for promoting equality for the trans community. In
contrast, Alberic, who aligns himself with Regina George (a leader, from “Mean
Girls”) wants to be a man, but he bases and creates his drag persona, Zahara
Montiere, on Marilyn Monroe. Soroya, in contrast, talks about gender dysphoria,
in which the person can’t recognize the sex they were born with.

Other significant personalities are introduced, and speak
candidly about their situations. April, is working towards her dream to be on
“RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which for her holds the key for success. Sophia’s goal is
to be a “passable” woman; this will help her overcome her feelings of
insecurity. And the sole female-to-male transsexual, Paxx, is touching as he searches
for his gender identity in a culture where there is little to no information on
FTM transitions.

Some of the interviewees in “Mala Mala” address the issue of
masculinity and femininity in a macho, Latino culture, but the filmmakers
generally celebrates the lives they present; there is no need to emphasize the
difficulties further. The most dramatic testimony perhaps comes from Samantha,
who describes getting hormone therapy on the black market, and the damaging
side effects the drugs have, ranging from a lack of a sex drive to liver damage
and possibly cancer. She bemoans the fact that she achieved her dream of
changing her body, but then her body is not working properly.

What comes across best is the lack of illusions these
members of the trans community have. Each is in various stages of transition,
and they are seen in private and in public, telling their stories, which are
all unique and interesting.

Sickles and Santini also know how to make the subjects
comfortable, and how to present them in a very likable format. They film fabulous
scenes of Alberic splashing around coyly in his bathtub, or Sophia, performing
a song into a dildo, which is cross-cut with her getting injections. And
April’s comment that people seem to equate being a drag queen with being a
prostitute is useful for combating stereotypes, as is a remark about drag
allowing the performer to express/be themselves, but through an alter ego that
represents “you as a woman.”

It is also empowering to see the members of the Butterfly
Trans Foundation promoting a March for Equality. Their efforts contrast with
Sandy, a prostitute, who observes that most people think the trans community
“only comes out at night” —a
reference to another damaging stereotype that involves clubbing and/or working
the streets.

“Mala Mala” shows how acceptance is possible, especially as
Bill 238, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of gender
identity and sexual orientation, is being heard in the courts. The passionate
arguments the film’s subjects make in courtroom are as eloquent as Sandy’s
later remarks about living with pride despite the burden of being trans. These
are the chief points of this insightful, inspiring doc. Sickles and Santini
wants to raise awareness and promote the achievements of these members of the trans
community. For some of them, getting the chance to live their lives with the
dignity they deserve is achievement enough.

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