REVIEW: ‘Mala Mala’ Documentary on Transgender Youth in PR Reminds Us It’s OK to Be Ourselves

Lead Photo: Courtesy of the Mala Mala
Courtesy of the Mala Mala
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Those who live along the margins are vulnerable to prejudices, violence and a lack of legal safeguards. And yet, there is also a lot of joy there too. There are friends who become family, homes that turn into impromptu beauty salons and get-togethers that become non-profits. Antonio Santini & Dan Sickle’s Mala Mala is a documentary with a lot of spirit. It is a party of a movie, but one of those parties where you know you’re drinking, dancing and wasting yourself until dawn all for a good cause: to celebrate yourself and your community.

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The film offers a cross-section of primarily trans-women and male-identified drag queens on the island of Puerto Rico, from advocate to cleaning lady to nightclub owner. The characters are at the heart of the film as they present a multiplicity of gender identities, with varying levels of attachment to their female energy or essence and, in some cases, at different stages of the transition process. One of the strongest voices in the film is that of Ivana Fred, an organizer and trans activist, who works to expand education about what it means to be transsexual in PR as opposed to existing within a gender binary. In one of the more poignant scenes in the film, and one that exhibits the conflicts between new vs. old school queerness, Ivana speaks patiently with sixty-five year old Soraya, a woman who transitioned forty years ago and herself does not acknowledge the term “transsexual.” She prompts, “Are you a beauty queen or are you a woman?”

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Mala Mala does not linger on the scars; it does not milk you for a tear. We see this particularly in the representation of trans sex workers such as Sandy. The filmmakers do an exceptional job at documenting Sandy’s life unashamedly- there are no shaky and grainy shots or hidden mics to arouse a sense of impropriety. Sandy does her best to survive and thus is all too aware that her biggest asset on the street is her male anatomy. Conversely, Paxx, who is gender-queer and biologically female, is unable to transition as there is no testosterone available for him on the island. “It’s so much easier for transwomen,” he states. Alberic a.k.a Zahara is the life of this policy-conscious party. Despite having several enhancement surgeries such as lifted cheekbones and buttocks, Alberic is happy being a man and aims to remain so. He talks about Zahara, his drag persona, not as an alter ego or an “other” outside of himself but rather as an extension of himself. It is this complicated and at times even contradictory manner in which the characters speak of “self” that pushes to the forefront the film’s biggest message: no matter what our exterior may conjure, todos somos iguales.

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There are several stylistic choices that stand out as inspired. The film offers an excellent soundtrack with a decidedly modern and electronic feel. The opening credits feature the track Métele by PR bred/BK based Buscabulla a sultry and deliberate nighttime jam. The titles gush in neon colors and a bolded script font, all of which is reminiscent of the opening credits, scored by Kavinsky’s Nightcall, to the film Drive. Buscabulla band member, Luis Alfredo del Valle, as well as the LA-based NguzuNguzu, keep the dreamy, sensual feel in additional tracks.

The cinematography is sharp, depictive, but verging on commercial with some cool lighting and reflective slow-mo. The perspective on the body feels at times objectifying and pointedly “male,” as the framing often presents the characters from the waist up. This recreates an interesting paradox in the lives of transsexuals: they rely on their appearance to identify but the spectator views them exclusively as sexual bodies. The structure of the film is unconventional. The characters are presented in vignettes and though there was no real through-point in terms of the narrative, you are never bored and always look forward to the next character introduction. The filmmakers’ choice to not adhere to a standard three-act, ticking clock, stakes-up-top approach to the story was much appreciated and gives the film an organic narrative flow.

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Mala Mala is truly a wonderful documentary with a lot of life and high hopes for the kinds of societies we could be the world over. The characters will remind you that it’s okay to be your strange, freakish, unexplainable self, that you deserve to be accepted and loved, and more importantly, not only is it okay but it is absolutely beautiful.

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See our photos from Mala Mala’s Drag Ball Premiere Party at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Mala Mala is playing at the IFC Center in NYC through July 14, 2015.