Ivana Fred is an activist. She represents the transgender community of Puerto Rico on television, fighting to be taken seriously on talk shows that aren’t always the most respectful. She also spends her time driving around San Juan at night, passing out free condoms and pamphlets to sex workers, helping them get tested and maintain their health despite their dangerous profession. And now she’s one of the heroes of a new documentary portrait of the transgender and drag communities on the island.
The most interesting thing about Mala Mala stems from that word so overused by documentary critics, “portrait.” The film, directed by Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, is a panorama woven from individual portraits, a total of nine named subjects with lives and perspectives that run a remarkably wide gamut. Sandy, Ivana, Alberic, Soraya, April, Queen Bee, Samantha, Sophia and Paxx do not share a single identity or even a single opinion as to what identity is, yet they occupy much of the same social space and they share the screen for this extraordinary documentary. As Samantha says at the beginning of the film, “You are your essence.” These characters define themselves, each in their own way, and the polyphonic structure of Mala Mala is its greatest strength.
Santini and Sickles take portraiture very seriously. Each of their primary subjects is granted a lush introduction, their name in bright neon letters that appear on the screen as they enter. The musical score by Flavien Berger underlines this approach, his relaxed beats lending a luxurious glamour to the movement of each cast member. The directors allow images to linger. They embellish bright colors and rich compositions with slow motion, reminiscent of the queer fiction cinema of Xavier Dolan and others.
There are gorgeously staged vignettes, moments that have been isolated and extended in order to distill these characters. Ivana poses naked under a forest waterfall, emphasizing her tremendous comfort with her body. Alberic, whose role models are Marilyn Monroe and Regina George from Mean Girls, gets his moment to shine in his own bathtub, covered in bubbles. His take on identity is among the loosest. He believes that while he will always identify as a man, his ideas of himself and his appearance, as they are simply inspirations, have no gender.
Alberic is also a member of the Doll House, a drag family that seems to loom large in the San Juan scene. One of his drag sisters is April Carrión, seen here as she prepares to fly to Los Angeles to compete in season six of RuPaul’s Drag Race (from which she was cut much too soon). She’s very young and very talented, a combination that leads her to a sometimes challenging perspective. In one particularly tense moment, she controversially explains her objection to the conflation of the drag and transgender communities in the popular imagination, particularly given the conception that drag queens have a lot in common with transgender sex workers.
Santini and Sickles cast doubt on this particular point, highlighting the unfairness of April’s statement by playing her voiceover atop one of her club numbers, in which performs on a large bed next to two scantily clad male dancers. Mala Mala is all about underscoring contradictions without necessarily resolving them. Soraya, for example, is a much older woman who insists upon the defined psychological condition of “gender dysphoria.” She objects to “beauty queens,” people who she says are attracted to transgender identity for the glamour and the physical beauty but then abandon it as they get older. She seems frustrated with the drag community as well as with transgender sex workers who she criticizes for not completing their surgical transition.
Yet, as Sandy explains, nothing is quite that simple. She is perhaps the film’s most compelling subject, a woman on the cusp of leaving pornography and sex work. She quite bluntly rejects Soraya’s physical argument, explaining that she has no interest in getting sexual reassignment surgery while she is still working the street. Moreover, such a career switch isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do in a society where discrimination against transgender women abounds. Samantha, for example, is a transgender woman who trained to be a professional flight attendant but then found herself unable to get a job. The medical process of transitioning isn’t exactly simple, either. Paxx, the film’s lone transgender man, is up against the fact that testosterone isn’t even currently available in Puerto Rico.
Then, after an hour of this beautifully articulate context, things take a sharp turn. Santini and Sickles abruptly shift toward a political narrative, following Sandy down an explicitly activist path. She and Ivana team up to found the Butterfly Trans Foundation, an organization that will go to the center of Puerto Rico’s government and demand equal protection under the law.
From here, Ivana’s work transitions from pamphlets and condoms to legislative testimony and rallies on the steps of the capitol. She and Sandy are heroes of a movement that has found its moment. The core of their method is simple. They will go to the halls of power and tell their stories. Their political strategy is the same as Santini and Sickles’s filmmaking strategy, the exploration of community through beautifully composed individual portraits. The political battle may be hard, but the intimate and emotionally resonant storytelling leading up to it creates a truly potent sense of hope.
This review was originally published on July 2, 2015.