With the recent media frenzy over Caitlyn Jenner and Season 3 of “Orange is the New Black,” featuring Emmy nominee and trans superstar Laverne Cox, there couldn’t be a better time for “Mala Mala,” the stunning documentary portrait of the trans community in Puerto Rico, to premiere.
“Mala Mala,” which will make its theatrical debut at New York’s IFC Center this Wednesday, July 1, follows a diverse collection of trans and drag subjects in Puerto Rico that includes LGBTQ activists, business owners, sex workers and a boisterous group of drag performers who call themselves “The Doll House.”
Despite being nominated for Best Documentary Feature and coming in second for the Audience Award during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, distribution became somewhat of a hurdle. Before it was picked up by Strand Releasing earlier this month, “Mala Mala” played at festivals in San Diego, Denver and Ecuador, as well as in Trinidad and Tobago, where Indiewire met directors Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, plus cinematographer Adam Uhl, and was given the behind-the-scenes scoop on the fun, enlightenment and danger that went into the multi-year shoot.
It all began when Santini brought a short film to a festival in Austin, Texas. They were all fresh out of college, with Sickles having studied acting and Uhl photography. “We went because we were like, ‘What are we going to do with our lives!?'” said Santini. They visited a club that was hosting a drag pageant. “We knew what it was, but we were not drag connoisseurs. There was a drag queen that everyone was booing, and she had a frying pan and she was hitting people with it and we thought she was awesome. We went up to her after she lost, and we were wasted and we were like, ‘Oh, you’re amazing, let’s hang out!'”
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The next day, the trio visited her house and found a completely different environment. “There was a woman sleeping on the couch, which was her ex-wife, and she had a 9-year-old daughter in the back that she wasn’t sure that she wanted us to meet. We realized that she was transitioning,” said Santini. “That was the first time we were exposed to the complicated consequences of deciding to change your gender. So we asked, ‘Why does this have to happen? Why does it have to be so difficult? What are the resources?’ So we decided we wanted to explore that.”
After deciding to make a film, they considered four different locations: Los Angeles, New York, Austin and San Juan. “When we were talking about these individual locations, Puerto Rico for a lot of reasons unveiled itself as the most interesting,” said Sickles. “Its relationship to the U.S. is very strange and for this community to exist in a country like Puerto Rico seemed more interesting than in a place where it was more accepted and more visible.”
Santini had gone to school with April Carrion, Puerto Rico’s rising drag superstar who eventually landed on the sixth season of “Ru Paul’s Drag Race.” She introduced them to her drag sisters at The Doll House. They found Paxx, the films trans-masculine subject, on Instagram. Ivana Fred, an activist whom they met at a health center, opened the door into the sex worker community on the island.
“We would party in that area and we would see the sex workers and we would go up to them with a flyer that would say ‘Be in a film!’ and April’s picture was on it, but they would never call us back,” said Santini. “They were very protective, and they didn’t want to be taken advantage of. They didn’t know if it was going to be pornography or some exploited news for TV that would out them to their parents or their friends. So once Ivana understood our intentions with the film, all the other girls were more open to talk to us and more willing to share their stories.”
Their first few trips didn’t provide the most usable footage, but they were beneficial for discovering how the community was structured. By their sixth trip to Puerto Rico, the team had found their subjects and set out on the wild three-year ride of making “Mala Mala” a reality. “You’re talking about seeing some of the greatest, most intense shows night after night,” said Uhl of the experience. “The intensity of those shows was amazing and one-of-a-kind. You’re part of something that’s so beautiful and the community is so vibrant and into it and you have access that is so rare for you to have.”
The first time interviewing the sex workers was an eye-opener for Sickles. “We were driving around with Ivana, and she didn’t tell us that we were going to start with the sex workers, or begin the interview with them. So she pulls up to the side of the road and one or two girls got in the car right away and sat down, and immediately my mind went to all of these crazy preconceived notions that I had about sex workers and prostitutes and how dirty they are and how I’ve never talked to a prostitute and ‘Oh my god! What is this going to be like?’ There was a lot of discrimination in that second, and she saw that. She saw that I was freaking out and she turned to me and was like, ‘You have a very handsome face.’ It was so earnest and so sweet and in that second I said to myself, ‘Damn, what the fuck? Calm down, she’s human.’ But it was the first time I had felt way out of my comfort zone in a while, and it was just a re-education that it’s not good to approach people with these negative ideas about them or what they do.”
But along with that enlightening self-discovery and the extraordinary drag shows came the potential for danger. The circumstances of being out all night followed by interviews during the day led to sleep deprivation and a car accident on the road. “We had April in the back seat of the car dressed as Marilyn Monroe and we went off the road,” said Uhl. “We flipped a couple of times before we landed. That was one of the moments where, afterwards, we were all like, ‘What are we doing?'”
“If you could set the tone, it was very much like, ‘Here is mortality slapping you in the face, and we are still going to keep working in spite of that!'” said Sickles.
In another instance, the team was shooting B-roll in a not-so-safe area and must have filmed something questionable. They were on a highway when a van pulled up beside them. “All their doors swung open and they started screaming at us because we had captured some drug dealer’s business. Antonio is driving his car yelling back at him in Spanish, while Adam is in the passenger seat freaking out,” said Sickles.
The guys in the van wanted to know why they had filmed them. “We weren’t going to say drag queens because you don’t want the drug dealer to know that,” said Santini, “so we said, ‘Oh we’re filming a landscape documentary because it was so beautiful.’ Then the guy was like, ‘Oh, okay,’ and he closed his van and drove away.”
Then there was the time that Uhl’s camera was almost stolen after shooting a lovely dinner the drag queens were having on the beach. Uhl and Santini were waiting for Sickles to get the car. “Some guy came up to us and he had this big jersey on, and as he’s walking toward us he turned around and started walking backwards and stuck his hands down his pants in the front,” said Uhl. “I don’t know if it was Antonio who said it, but someone shouted ‘Run, run!’ and we just started running as fast as we could towards the car, and you just hear ‘BANG!’ behind us. We didn’t turn around, we just ran as fast as we could and jumped in. As we drove away we could see the guy who presumably was going to rob us holding the gun up in the air. We barely got away.”
Despite these set backs, the team persevered and completed the shoot. Their persistence paid off both during production (they were lucky enough to experience one of Puerto Rico’s most important political movements for its transgender citizens) and throughout their long search for distribution.
“We had lots of different reasons to drop the project and walk away because every single moment of it was difficult,” said Sickles. “But I think all of these obstacles and all of these crazy stories were, if anything, what made us keep going. We’ve all grown together. When we first shot April, that was the first time that she had ever hosted a drag show. And then to trace her form that moment to actually getting onto ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ it’s a really cool thing to see. The entire thing has been growth for everybody. That I think is the most rewarding thing.”
For Uhl, one of the most rewarding stories was hearing from a young man who had sneaked in to see the film. “He told me he works at the ticket counter, and he went in when he wasn’t supposed to. [laughs] He told me how much he loved the movie, and one of his favorite things that he liked about it is that he can express and own his identity in any way, even if it’s not binary or typical. Things like that are great to hear and so powerful. When people feel empowered by their uniqueness instead of wanting to hide themselves or mask themselves in order to fit into a certain culture—that I think is what we are trying to get at. We’re using and working with this particular community to express that, and to bring forth that confidence. When we hear things like that from dudes working in movie theaters—that’s it. It’s things like that that we want to accomplish.”
“Mala Mala” opens Wednesday, July 1 at IFC in New York.
READ MORE: Why Can’t This Documentary About Transgender Puerto Ricans Find a Home?