Mala Mala, a bold new documentary about Puerto Rico’s diverse trans scene, received a standing ovation after its world premiere last night at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, where it’s one of just 12 films competing in this year’s World Documentary Competition.
The doc stars several members of P.R.’s transgender and drag communities, including the island’s most visible trans activist, Ivana Fred, and star of season six of RuPaul’s Drag Race April Carrión, who at the premiere wore a beautiful black gown emblazoned with the film’s credits down the back.
Directed by first-timers Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini, Mala Mala was three years in the making, and brings together very different stories — from Sandy, an unapologetic sex worker in San Juan’s rough La 15 neighborhood, to Paxx, a brave young trans man with no apparent local support system. At turns tender, funny, raw and gorgeous, the film also covers a profound moment in local LGBT history: last year’s passage of Senate Bill 238, which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“The bill really just came up during the last eight months of production,” Sickles said. “We got a call from Ivana one day saying like, ‘Oh hey, we’re going to the senate to fight for our rights.’ We’re like, ‘What? Okay, so we need to be there.’ So we were lucky enough to follow it along, and to see it passed into law was golden for us.”
Another part of the film reveals the excitement within The Doll House, Puerto Rico’s acclaimed drag troupe, as one of their own (Carrión) prepares to depart for the mainland for her stint on RuPaul’s smash reality show. So what does Carrión think of the recent “she mail” controversy surrounding the show?
“We need to have humor, and we cannot take everything so seriously,” she says. “I mean, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a campy show. It’s a show that makes fun of everything. And that is what drag is. We are men dressed as women doing a show and trying to be all fishy. Like, it’s not serious. But it is what it is, and if somebody is offended by the phrase, then it’s good that there’s respect for that too.”
Beyond revealing the richness of Puerto Rico’s trans scene to the rest of the world, Mala Mala has already helped serve as a cohesive element back home. “During production, the community was really fragmented, so we would have to go to very different places across the island to film,” says Sickles. “Throughout the filming though, we’ve been able to see these relationships start to form, and now they’re all hanging out without us, and it’s beautiful.”
“They themselves have opened up to possibilities of how they can collaborate in their community,” Santini adds.