Mala Mala


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Mala Mala
"As a portrait of a particular community at a critical moment in its history, this film is undoubtedly valuable."

Although Puerto Rican society is much more inclusive than it used to be, it's still a difficult place to be transgender. Public understanding is still very limited but human nature remains what it is and so, as in so many places, a lot of trans people find themselves with just two options: sex work or the entertainment industry. Mala Mala meets some of them - as well as one or two who have managed to live their lives differently - and gives them the chance to tell their stories.

It's framed as 'the transgender experience', which is about as useful as calling something 'the female experience', but looked at simply as a sample and understood in its cultural context it's still an interesting film. Potential confusion arises from the casual association of drag culture and trans people, though some of the interviewees do their best to counter this. April, who loves performing as a woman and who has since made it big after starring in RuPaul's Drag Race explains that she has no desire to transition or live in a female role full time. Soraya, a 65-year-old hairdresser who fought for the chance to transition at a time when it was still almost unheard of, is very firm on the difference between experiencing dysphoria and liking a bit of dressing up. It's worth remembering however that many people in the early stages of coming to terms with trans identities experiment with drag, so there's some justification for the ambiguity.

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Equally ambiguous are some off the attitudes around sex work. Sandy talks about wanting to get off the streets, but it's difficult. It's understandably appealing to look beautiful and to have people be attracted to one's idealised self, but most of the customers, despite that, are looking for women with penises, women who are willing to penetrate them. This creates a trap for workers who want to go through surgical transition but know it would be more difficult to earn money afterwards, or find the idea of being penetrated themselves too invasive. So there's the endless process of saving - and whilst we don't see them directly here, it's fairly clear that there are also any number of temptations that might lessen the stress of it all but eat those savings up.

The film is dominated by trans women, so it's something of a relief when a young trans man called Paxx turns up to remind us that, yes, people do transition in the other direction too (in the UK, today, numbers have reached equilibrium). If his story is a slight one, it's explained by the fact that he simply can't find the means to transition in his home country, nor can he find community support. In his clean, bright room, a world away from those grimy streets, he seems much more isolated.

Things are starting to change - culturally as well as legally - and the film meets some of those making a difference. As elsewhere, beauty makes it easier, with the glamorous Ivana finding it easy to get on TV, but it's when the women decide to cover up - to make sure audiences are looking at their faces, not their breasts - that a message really starts to take shape, and it's here that viewers are invited to engage rather than simply observing. The wider gender and race issues underlying some of the barriers this community faces become more visible, and the pace picks up as we move away from individual struggles to focus on the prospect of a better future.

As a portrait of a particular community at a critical moment in its history, this film is undoubtedly valuable. As an insight into wider trans experiences it should be treated with a degree of caution, but there's enough here that's universal - regardless of one's gender experience - that the film should travel well.

Reviewed on: 02 Jul 2015
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A documentary about the trans community in Puerto Rico.

Director: Antonio Santini, Dan Sickles

Writer: Antonio Santini, Dan Sickles

Year: 2014

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: US, Puerto Rico

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