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Dan Sickles found himself at a loss for words while shooting his new documentary, Mala Mala. Literally — he sensed his language was lacking in proper descriptors to delicately contextualize his subject, Puerto Rico’s transsexual and drag queen cultures.
“Throughout filming, certain terms were employed in ways that both deepened and widened my understanding of them, and words that proved their insufficiency within their context,” he tells THR. “It’s wild we don’t have more verbal technology to express complexity within complex constructs.”
After raising more than $30,000 in finishing funds on Kickstarter, Sickles and co-director Antonio Santini will premiere Mala Mala at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. While the vibrant imagery of local drag shows pops onscreen, Santini says it was his own misconceptions about his home that drew him to the subject matter.
As a kid, Santini was warned to avoid “La 15,” the “bad part of town” that became the setting for the documentary. “It’s both a party spot and a survival zone, the place where all the marginalized in Puerto Rico celebrate and hustle together every night,” he says. “Being there challenged Dan and I to ask big questions about what it means to be a man, a woman, a community, a family.”
With a burning interest in this disparaged neighborhood, but without many connections to the transsexual community, Sickles and Santini scoured the Internet for anyone they could meet. Santini found Paxx, born female and identifying as male, on Instagram. Ivana tapped them into a network of trans sex workers. Kayra, the mother of a drag house on the West Coast, was contacted through Facebook.
“All the drag queens know each other through social networking,” Santini says. “Same with the sex workers. We’d look through their connections online, browse through profiles, send messages, get on the phone, and when the opportunity arose, we’d meet up. Once we met one subject, they would lead us to the next.”
Sickles hopes audiences in or outside the trans community will connect Mala Mala with broader identity issues — including his territory’s own relationship to the United States. “Puerto Rico’s geopolitical status and the transgender experience is similar in that both seem to be engaged in a similar process of articulating their identity within, and in relation to their context. Just as Puerto Rico grapples with its cultural and territorial voice within its autonomous but federally bound status, transitioning is a balancing act between categories that constitute ‘gender.’ ”
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