The afternoon draws to a close as we cruise in a car through the glowing mountainside of rural Puerto Rico, a landscape refreshingly unfamiliar to the documentary film screen. Suddenly, we arrive at the beach, and our driver, a lanky individual with delicate features and long hair, gazes out toward the ocean. Their voice is crisp, sweet and punctuated with subtle undertones of what one might identify as masculine depth: “Some people look at me and say: is that a woman, is that a man, is that an alien, what the hell is that? I say honey, whatever you want me to be. I got a little bit of everything.”
Now playing at New York's IFC Center, the documentary Mala Mala treads the porous boundaries between body and identity with grace, respect and subtle wit. It paints a complex and variegated portrait of the transgender community in Puerto Rico through the stories of seven charming characters, some of them transgender, and others part of a company of Ru-Paul-aspiring drag queens called The Doll House, highlighting the struggles they face and the battles they must fight in order to secure a dignified existence in a society bent on dehumanizing them.
Co-directors Antonio Santini (himself Puerto Rican) and Dan Sickles succeed in weaving a subtle argument that reads like a sequined dress unzipping to reveal an open wound beneath, at once painful and potentially healing. Relying on the beautiful camerawork of Adam Uhl and well-paced editing by Sofia Subercaseaux and Flavia de Souza, they do not shy away from indulging in glimmering beauty shots and performative, playful, aestheticized depictions of their characters.
This kind of cinematography is risky — especially considering the overabundance of clichéd and dehumanizing media representations of transgender people — but Mala Mala’s reliance on aesthetics is not gratuitous. The film plays with the viewer’s expectations, deconstructing them little by little as the story unfolds into an intimate dialogue with its characters, who dish out profound reflections and open questions about gender, identity and aesthetics. The glamour shots give life to the inner worlds of the characters, empowering rather than objectifying them. When Alberic, one of the drag queens, says of his performance persona, “Ideas don’t have a gender or sex, they just come from the deepest part of my heart,” we are reminded that aesthetics and performance can be radical because they help us dream our true selves into being.
Mala Mala deconstructs the gender binary by delving into each character’s unique relationship with gender. Soraya, for instance, describes how she does not like to be called transsexual because she feels that she is a woman. She talks, instead, about the years during which she felt her gender identity didn’t line up with the sex she was assigned at birth, and about becoming one with her true self after transitioning. She makes a key distinction between looking like a woman and feeling like (being) a woman, a crucial part of which, for her, involves having a vagina. “Getting a boob job does not make you transsexual,” she says. “Being a woman is something you carry in your heart and your mind, and many transsexuals fall short of that once they start aging. What are you then? A woman or a beauty queen?”
The film flows back and forth between personal reflections on identity and questions of discrimination and social injustice. Sandy, a transgender woman who does sex work in order to sustain herself, does so because it has been impossible for her to get a job due to discrimination. Samantha, another transgender woman, talks about being unable to find a job as a flight attendant after becoming certified as one. “Nobody would like to hire someone that looks like a girl with a boy’s ID. Oh, they said very nice, this and that, we will call you. And that was it,” she recounts. “I’m still waiting for their phone call.”
The doc also tackles the structural oppressions faced by the transgender population and the activism emerging around transgender rights on the island. “While the transsexual stays inside a cave like a bat, only coming out at night, all dressed up, the world won’t know that we exist and what our needs are. I need work for transsexuals. I need health care for transsexuals. I need housing for transsexuals,” says Sandy, who is helping organize, along with some of her fellow sex workers, the Butterflies Trans Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to winning equal rights for transgender individuals. Of the “help” that has been available until now for transgender people, she says: “It is a hypocrisy. They don’t want prostitution in Puerto Rico, but they give you condoms. … How is it that we spend $10 million on pamphlets and condoms?”
As the doc draws to a close, we see members of the Butterflies Trans Foundation attending a public hearing for a bill that would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, which, we are happy to learn, passes successfully. The culminating moment of the film is an LGBTT rights march where we see many of the film’s characters; after they shared such intimate revelations with us throughout the course of the film, it is hard to not feel like we are there sharing the moment with them. We may even surprise ourselves, chanting with them under our breath this prayer: “We are all equal.”
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