Directed by Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles
Opens July 1 at IFC Center
“I want to see you at the march,” trans activist Ivana Fred calls out her car window to a streetwalker. Earlier that night, she’s visited one of San Juan’s nightclubs, drumming up the turnout for the next day’s rally between drag acts. The documentary Mala Mala understands the link between performance and activism: for the trans-identified Puerto Ricans profiled by Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, presenting an identity is a political act.
We hear about black-market hormones and bad plastic surgeries; Ivana, who goes on talk shows dressed like Jessica Rabbit and dances with the hosts in between talking points, laughs sportingly as an older colleague, Soraya, dismisses the language of identity politics (don’t call her a “transsexual,” she’s “a woman, a heterosexual woman”), and transsexuals who want to look like “Barbies.” The way these bodies are contested privately mirrors public life: the rally Ivana and others are organizing is in support of a bill outlawing employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity—the difficulty of finding work, the prostitute and activist Sandy emphasizes, pushes trans people onto the streets, where they’re subject to fetishization on someone else’s terms.
Santini and Sickles attend to the effort of harmonizing self-perception and appearance: drag performers shave their butts with safety razors; prostitutes apply layers of makeup. The subjects are introduced with stylized title cards, and the filmmakers stage photo shoots, in bubble baths or waterfalls. House music and neo-noirish neon push nighttime montages into movie-movie fantasy.
But these are intermittent flourishes in a primarily issue-driven film. Personal narratives are vital activist tools for inspiring empathy and spreading knowledge, but Mala Mala’s testimonials are controlled and compressed—autobiographical memes which, at best, spark curiosity for rawer truth and harder data than pushed for here. The rationale for featuring a diverse range of experiences is self-evident, but there’s barely time to see the subjects facing away from the camera. The one exception is Sandy, who discusses her personal life, sex work and political efforts with equal candor (and with her boyfriend at her side as she explains she’ll complete her transition once she’s made enough money to get off the game permanently, and that if she never does, well, “Do you love me?”). At times, the filmmakers seem tempted to let Sandy take over the film entirely—they should have.