Tribeca Review: Mala Mala


Mala Mala is the type of documentary that you feel privileged having watched. The Puerto Rican drag scene and transgender communities are endlessly fascinating, and watching them thrive through Mala Mala‘s respectful lens cements this documentary as one of my favorites. Mala Mala is hugely educational and the stories of the transitioning men and women it profiles are funny, frank, and honest. This is one documentary that doesn’t pull any punches with its editing or its message. Mala Mala‘s candid portrayal of the trans and drag community is refreshing and somehow hopeful, even when their stories are full of struggle. 

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Mala Mala
Director: Antonio SantiniDan Sickles
Release Date: TDB
Rating: NR

Mala Mala spends its 89 minute run profiling nine key members of Puerto Rico’s trans and drag communities. It delves lightly into each of their stories while successfully balancing talking head segments with seemingly candid shots of the nine men and women interacting within the communities they live and work. Mala Mala‘s unflinching, ‘fly-on-the-wall’ style of portraying its subjects stands as the film’s crowing achievement. Whether they’re hanging out at The Doll House (a drag club) or picking up clients on the street, Mala Mala allows its cast to speak their minds, for good or bad, and it’s incredibly refreshing. 

The film begins with Sandy, a transgender woman, telling the camera about the importance of passing for a woman while working the streets. Sandy acknowledges that, although she has had top surgery done, preserving a certain other appendage does have its disadvantages while trying to lure a john, and that the best solution to this problem is to simply be more beautiful than any biological woman. While Sandy talks, the documentary listens. There is no music to dictate our feelings and most of the segment is uncut, allowing us to observe Sandy while she applies her makeup for the night and jokes good-naturedly about venereal diseases. It would be easy to paint this woman’s life in a highly sympathetic light, but when Sandy is allowed to speak candidly, there is a sense that she doesn’t at all resent the way she lives. Sandy isn’t a pitiable person, and Mala Mala is an outlet through which she can become charming and likable through her own merits. 

This sense of honesty is present in all of Mala Mala. If the documentary has any agenda at all, it is only to show the immense love and companionship within Puetro Rico’s trans and drag worlds. Whether it’s  Paxx’s, the only male transgender profiled in the film, flirting coyly with his girlfriend or Sandy nuzzling up to her boyfriend, love in this community beams throughout the film. This sense of unity stems from Mala Mala‘s utmost respect for its subject matter. It reports on the lives of these people in a matter-of-fact way and does not condescend with sappy music or propagandize with its footage. Struggling though life, especially as an underrepresented and often misunderstood subset of society, is both inspiring and soul crushing, but people do not live solely in these extremes and neither does Mala Mala.

Additionally, Mala Mala‘s clever inclusion of RuPaul and her drag competition, RuPaul’s Drag Race, makes this film even more relatable and its message further reaching. As a massive fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race myself, I was happily surprised to see season 6’s very own drag superstar April Carrión amongst the queens at The Doll House where she excitedly talked about appearing on the show. April and her drag sisters are packing suitcases together, and the scene feels overwhelmingly genuine and joyful. The beauty of being alive in a time when a woman like RuPaul can rise to incredible fame is not lost on April, and it’s endearing to listen to her marvel at the massive impression RuPaul has left on the world (“She even has a wax figure at the wax museum in New York!”). 

This is not to say that Mala Mala doesn’t have its upsetting moments. RuPaul’s mark on the world aside, the transgender community is still highly marginalized. The documentary spends much time with a young woman named Ivana, the transgender spokesperson for the Butterfly Trans Foundation, and her struggle fighting for equal employment for people who are transitioning. Yet even this seemingly impossible effort is met with success by the end of Mala Mala when Bill 238, which prohibits employment discrimination because of gender identity and sexual orientation, passes. 

Over all,  Mala Mala exists as a celebration of Puerto Rican drag and trans life. Directors Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles understand that sometimes showing the triumphs of a marginalized group of people can hold more power than reiterating their struggles alone. The film is powerful because it is not afraid to celebrate something that many still consider taboo. And the best part is, the subjects in this film are comfortable celebrating themselves as well.