If you're heading to the Damn! These Heels Film Festival, catch Mala Mala.
The well-crafted film, which made its debut at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, tells the stories of a diverse collection of individauls from Puerto Rico's trans communities, from sex workers on the street to ladies on the stage. The film doesn't pull any punches and has been praised by critics (including us).
Recently, we chatted with the films directors Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, along with one of the film's subjects April Carrión, who also appeared on RuPaul's Drag Race, about making the film and its impact.
The film covers some topics that we don’t hear about too often. How did this whole project get started?
AS: Dan and I were in Austin for a film festival three years ago, and we met a drag queen when we were there who invited us to her home, and when we went to visit, we learned she wasn’t just a performer but had started her [sexual] transition three months before. She was dealing with all the consequences that come with that: Her ex-wife was still sleeping on the couch, she had a 9-year-old daughter she still hadn’t figured out how to come out to. We realized there was all of this stuff she had to deal with by coming out with her identity, and we were really intrigued and touched by the courage she had to do that. So we decided we wanted to explore the trans topic.
April and I went to high school together. She’s a year younger, and I remember her from school. Dan and I saw her on Facebook, and we were like ‘Oh my gosh.’ She did this Liza Minnelli impression that we thought was incredible.
DS: So we started filming April. The first time we filmed April was the first time she ever hosted a drag show. It was on the left side of the island (Puerto Rico), and from there, April introduced us to the drag house and that’s how we met a lot of her sisters and started to venture from there. We connected with the drag house on the other side of the island and started talking to the transsexual community, specifically sex workers, and found there was a lot of different connections between members of the community in disjointed, disconnected ways sometimes.
AS: Someone like April, we felt couldn’t really introduce us to the trans girls we saw on the street, and that’s one way we realized they were fragmented communities. She had access to all the drag queens on the island, but there was another community that was separate.
Why Puerto Rico?
DS: We considered four different locations for the doc and settled on Puerto Rico because, in a lot of different ways, it became the most interesting for us to investigate. It’s in a strange political situation. It’s one of the last colonies in the Western Hemisphere, and, in a sense, it’s definitely figuring out how to articulate itself and doesn’t get much voice, much play on the global stage. A lot of mainland Americans have no idea what’s going in Puerto Rico. Fact is, it’s worse off statistically in every way than a major city like Detroit right now, but we don’t know that.
So this story, in terms of its scope, a fight for civil rights, is particularly special because it’s happening in sort of a microcosm of a microcosm.
You only profiled on transgender man, Paxx. Was there any effort to find others?
DS: There was an effort. We spoke with a lot of different outreach centers on the island and nobody knew of anyone who had transitioned or was in the process of transitioning who still lived in Puerto Rico. Paxx, I actually found through Instagram. And Pax was very unaware of any other sort of community that identified similarly. It’s actually recently Lambda Legal has gotten down there and started working with Pax, and they found a couple others who identify similarly. That’s something that very recently happened.
All of the subject's stories come together in the end, just as an anti-descrimination law is being passed. April, what was this experience like for you?
AC: It’s part of the process. The law was passed, but a lot of people still need to understand and accept transgender people working. Just because a law was passed doesn’t mean it's totally okay to come beat us up. We take one step at a time and hope everything is going to come through, and I think we are making progress and it's coming out pretty quickly. I think this film is going to help a whole lot, because people are going to view us as human beings. They’re not going to view us as freaks who do shows or transgender people who just want to fuck. They see us as humans, normal people who have dreams and aspirations in life.
April, all of this was filmed before you were on RuPaul’s Drag Race. How is life different for you now?
AC: We filmed when I first auditioned for RuPaul season five. It was a long time ago, so I think a lot of things have changed for me for the better. I have been traveling so much all over the US and have met so many amazing people. It truly changed my life for the better. It’s an amazing experience meeting so many people and just traveling.
Are there any issues you were unable to cover in this film that you wish you could have fit in?
AS: We didn’t totally want to focus on the sex work, because that wasn’t what the movie was about. It was dangerous and easy to just go purely down that road because it’s so complicated. There is a really difficult situation with the trans girls and sex workers on the island. Because there’s no infrastructure, no government-funded health care to support [sexual] transitions, they don’t really have a place they feel like they can go except to each other and the street.
A lot of them really are forced into sex work just to transition. Many think ‘My mom and dad don’t want to hear that I want to be a woman, so I’ll go to the street corner and make money for two years, save up and I’ll pay for my body and hopefully by then, I’ll be able to get a real job and get out of this.’ But a lot of them get stuck in the cycle . . . It’s a crazy cycle that can really only be stopped if new structures are set in place.
DS: Filming a documentary, you have thousands and thousands of dreams of what might happen or you might be able to catch at any given moment or with any given person, and maybe none of them will pan out. I think along the way, there were so many dreams that we had for where it could go, and very rarely did it go there. But it would go somewhere, like April getting into RuPaul. When we started, April had also landed a Gloria Estefan music video. That was the biggest achievement and was going to be a big moment in the film, and then RuPaul happened and it altered what the film ultimately became.
What was the reaction to the film at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival?
AC: It was really crazy, because so many people from all over really embraced the film and really were able to see how we are in Puerto Rico.
DS: There was applause during the movie. I’ve never been in a movie before when people clapped in the middle of it.
Anything else before we wrap up?
AS: We’re going to be releasing more content. Mala Mala isn’t just a documentary, it’s an idea. We don’t’ want to position this as an indie doc, because there’s so much more we want to do with it. We want Mala Mala to be exactly what it means, which is an empowering feeling. We want to keep making content, whether it be videos or images or writings. It doesn’t have to be one thing.