The film begins with drive-by scenes of Puerto Rico: blue sky, sun-soaked houses surrounded by greenery, the ocean in the distance. The camera focuses back into the car, a person of ambiguous gender in the driver’s seat, with straight blond hair flying back in the wind.
Jump to a curvaceous woman driving around the streets of San Juan at night, calling out to her lady friends working the street, handing out condoms. We soon learn her name is Ivana Fred. “I may be a Puertoriqueña, but I was made in Ecuador,” she said in reference to her Barbie-esque physique.
During the first 20 minutes of Mala Mala, we are introduced to an array of characters: Alberic, a drag queen; Soraya, a 65-year-old trans forerunner who identifies as a real woman; Ivana Fred, a LGBT activist who identifies as a trans woman; Sandy, a woman who has not completed the physical sex-change transition and plans on keeping it that way; Samantha, a woman whose use of black-market estrogen made her ill and slowed down her transition. While most of the subjects deal with the transition from male to female, one character, Paxx struggles with the transition from female to male, wrapping his bust every morning and hiding it under layers of shirts in the thick Puerto Rican heat.
Puerto Rico has existed as a crossroads for decades: where English and Spanish meet; where the United States and Latin America converge. Like their home, the subjects of the film are portrayed as in transit: navigating the difficult and oftentimes unclear road to their gender identity and later, fighting for their right to equal employment opportunities. Because most employers choose not to hire a woman with a male birth certificate, or a man with a female birth certificate, many transgender people participate in prostitution to satisfy financial needs, like Sandy. Others, like Alberic, perform in drag clubs like The Doll House, hoping to eventually make it big on the drag scene.
The entire film consists of intertwined scenes from the lives of nine subjects, giving each subject their own fragmented story arc. Connecting them all are cinematic use of camera angles, snapshots of land and cityscapes, and a light, bouncy soundtrack of 80s synth and an ethereal falsetto voice singing, “Mala mala.” The directors include no narration or mention of themselves; the only characters that speak are the ones in front of the camera.
While the subjects are all part of the trans community, their sense of self-identification very obviously differs from person to person; they don’t all fit the same mold. The film’s directors, Antonio Santini of Puerto Rico and Dan Sickles of New York, planned it that way. “When we followed one person and saw his or her story, we wanted a contrasting experience to pair with it,” said Sickles.
In an early scene with Ivana Fred and Soraya, the two discuss their opposing viewpoints of how a trans woman identifies herself. As previously mentioned, Ivana poses as the stereotypical “Barbie,” evoking the idea that trans-women want to be the most beautiful version of themselves. On the other hand, Soraya believes that true women don’t strive to be Barbie dolls, that beauty does not define a woman. “So many people don’t understand the concept of gender dysphoria,” she says, implying that even people who have gender dysphoria do not fully comprehend it.
This appears to be quite accurate as director Antonio Santini says, “They [the subjects] weren’t experts on the word, they were trying to discover their identities. Words weren’t so important, words can fail.”
Already the viewer recognizes the existence of disagreement between people who are part of the trans community. The idea of binaries becomes even more complicated with the inclusion of Paxx, whose experience provides a great deal of ambivalence to the trans experience. He sees himself as a “non-binary person" in "a sort of neither nor” state of living.
Slowly throughout the film, political undertones emerge on the surface. Ivana Fred and the Butterfly Trans Organization help members of the trans community unite in the fight for equal employment opportunities. Despite the varying situations of each character, their rights as human beings allow them to band together. At the film’s end, the various characters are shown in a huge mass of people at City Hall. Ivana, Sandy, and others stand on the steps with mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz while Paxx stands in the crowd with his girlfriend. On their faces are glimpses of optimism for the future.
When Dan and Antonio began filming the characters in San Juan, they just asked them, “Educate us.” This beautifully made film does just that.