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Mala Mala Filmmakers: LGBTQ rights & filmmaking

In July 2020 Equality Now Board Member, Patricia Amira, sat down(virtually) with Antonio Santini, Dan Sickles, and Sophia Voines to discuss their documentary film, Mala Mala.

My first question is for you Dan and Antonio, the film shows the many sides of the transgender community in Puerto Rico, how did you decide which stories to highlight and how was the process of ensuring each individual’s story was genuinely portrayed?

Dan: I think a lot of our work early on was figuring out what we were trying to talk about. Antonio and I knew someone who was in the midst of her transition and that is where this project really began.

In reading a lot about this emerging topic of Trans Studies I found Kate Bornstein, Susan Stryker, and Leslie Feinberg, thinkers like this that really articulated gender as something of a spectrum as opposed to a binary. Antonio and I wanted to capture as much of that spectrum as we possibly could in the time that we had.

And then going about putting all the pieces together and choosing the cast, etc. that was all a very organic process that sort of unfolded in different ways for each person that ended up being a part of the film. I was actually introduced to Sophia through the woman who was cutting my hair in New York City, I was telling her about this project and she said she would put me in touch with Sophia. And Antonio had gone to school with April Carrión and they had connected there. So it was really a step-by-step process when casting the film.

Antonio: Yeah you know we did the movie in trips and we would come for an extended period of time and meet people and then just show up at people’s doors and ask questions because at that time the topic was about a community that we were apart of but we still hadn’t fully immersed ourselves or tried to understand the entire community. So in many ways, in the process, Dan and I were trying to understand why this identity was separate and marginalized.

In the end, everyone at the film, all connected on many different things and the premiere was a celebration of having found ourselves and being in a dignified space that wasn’t scary or dark or life-threatening.

Sophia, tell us about your journey and your life in Puerto Rico as a former New Yorker?

Sophia: I was in Puerto Rico doing my thing when Dan called me and asked if I wanted to be in a documentary and I was like “sure who doesn’t want to be in a documentary.” To be honest, at first I didn’t think anything would come of it, but then it started to get serious and lights would show up and it went on for a long time. It was fun but there was one point where they had a camera attached to the car and I was like “oh now we’re big-time”. So then I made just one request that they make me look pretty, which they didn’t (sarcastically). 

I like to say I am Puerto Rican by injection. When I was 13 years old my first boyfriend was Puerto Rican, pretty much the majority of the men I’ve been with are Puerto Rican. I would go there on every vacation I had and then an opportunity came where I could live there so I went with it.

When I first moved there I rode my bike everywhere so people started to know me and I would swim to the bar and people started asking who this crazy trans person was hanging around. They kept saying I would be gone, but I kept staying and staying and staying. But when they started filming it took away my anonymity which was kind of a lot. 

All of the individuals in the film reference times they were not only discriminated against by society but also in access to resources, employment, healthcare, and more. Could you speak to this and what you think are the biggest challenges to equality for transgender individuals in Puerto Rico and the rest of the United States?

Sophia: So I lived in Puerto Rico about 10 years ago, to put context to what I will say. The Puerto Rican people are wonderful people but it is important to note, not that this is a bad thing, but people are very Catholic and a lot of the discrimination stems from that.

There is a lot of macho stuff going on and although there are lots of gay people everywhere, there were not a lot of trans people back when I lived there. It was difficult for anyone to get surgery or hormones or even go to the doctor.

When I got a sinus infection the doctor didn’t want to see me, I waited for 9 hours in a hospital while they peeked at me through the door. It was very scary to think that I couldn’t get sick there. Also, for the whole time I was in Puerto Rico, it was really hard to meet people because it had to be really secretive. A guy couldn’t be seen going into my house or out of my house.

I think discrimination is alive and well everywhere. Even here in Vermont where I live now, even though the reputation is that it is so progressive, it really isn’t that way. 

Dan, in a previous interview you talked about how this film was part of a goal to “queer the genre of documentary”, six years later, do you think that Mala Mala and other documentaries covering stories of queer people have accomplished this? 

Dan: I remember that Antonio and I were speaking about this a lot at the time that there had to be action behind our film. In moments within the film, to “queer the genre”, not so much in terms of its sexuality but in terms of what it can do and how it can approach its subjects and how it can articulate their dreams or their fantasies. We tried to bring some magical realism into what’s otherwise a pretty static genre. 

A lot of the discrimination the protagonists faced stemmed from deeply entrenched religious beliefs,  an issue seen the world over not only for the LGBTQI community but for women and girls too. Do you think religious groups and the LGBTQI community will ever be able to bridge the divide? 

Dan: I’d like to imagine that there could be a religion that could rise to the occasion. Maybe there is an existing religion that hasn’t evolved to that place yet in an authentic way or maybe that religion hasn’t come along yet. But I do believe there is a system of spiritual support that can be offered to everyone. 

Antonio: The church in Puerto Rico and the current administration, which you could call the far-right basically, they collaborate, as happens in many countries around the world. The church population is very dominant in Puerto Rico and has a large number of votes and the administration wants those votes. And you have to ask yourself, do we actually have separation of church and state in Puerto Rico?

There is this idea of a hegemonic religion in Puerto Rico and those who don’t adhere to those beliefs are marginalized. Puerto Rico is incredibly binary; everything is a box. I think a lot of queer and trans people in Puerto Rico feel like they have to go either way. You either have to be hyper-feminine or hyper-masculine, it is very hard to exist in the middle.

And these were questions we asked when we were making this film of “Where do we all fit in? What is the spectrum? Where does it begin and end? Who is allowed in and who is left outside?” I know from some of the subjects in the film that they have had to pay certain prices to conform and the life that they feel forced to live is a little bit for safety because it is hard to look a certain way in Puerto Rico. And you see that in Sophia’s sequence in the film as well when she talks about what it means to feel seen.

How did you work with the cinematographer and how did the look of the film inform the ethos you were intending to create?

Dan: Adam Uhl was the director of photography for Mala Mala and for our second film as well actually, Dina which came out in 2017. It definitely depended on who we were with because there were a lot of different personalities in the film. But there is a playful aspect to it in general.

I think the curiosity that we had was something you could see in the lens it was shot in. The process of making it was the process of figuring out what it was that was being made. And I think a lot of those things are in the project.

It is raw and young, and it wants to really prove itself. But at the same time, it wants to have fun and be playful and not be taken too seriously. 

What did you each learn about yourselves in this process?

Antonio: For me, I was born a biological boy in Puerto Rico and every single thing of the experience of growing up in Puerto Rico is another thing that doesn’t conform to that boyhood. And I think at the end of the day, I have realized that I am part of the Queer, Trans community. I don’t identify as cis, but also living here and working here now, I’ve had to acknowledge the fact that I am perceived as a male. And expressions outside of that jeopardize my ability and my profession and my social connections.

For someone like me, if I were to truly express my gender identity, right now in 2020 in Puerto Rico, I would be scared for my life. So I live my life now in a way that is accepting, for the time being, that this male identity is for the best interest of my family and my profession and I hope little by little I can create a space for myself where I feel comfortable.

I am sad to say that, but you know Puerto Rico is a complicated place. It rarely exists in the media, outside of the hurricane and the corrupt governors. It is an ecosystem full of complicated systems and there is so much work that still needs to be done. And that is why this kind of conversation is so important because oftentimes you don’t actually hear that many voices coming from the island because those in the media are the same over and over again. Puerto Rico is a marginalized community, as is the Puerto Rican trans identity. 

Dan: I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, but I was educated in a way where I was supposed to trust institutions and certain systems and there is a specific way you have to achieve what you want. But in working on this film, I was shocked to see the lack of support and acknowledgment, the real lack of attention being paid to people having this experience.

One of the things I learned was really how that fight is built on interpersonal relationships and building communities in that way. I mean you see it in the film, it is Ivana going to Sophia’s club and saying, “we have this march you should show up.” She is doing that on her own time, it is Sophia organizing her ladies to show up at that march with the t-shirts. And it is all of these little relationships that build a coalition that gets policy passed that actually builds progressive movements and to see it in action was a huge learning experience for me. 

Sophia: And you know being trans is a very dangerous thing. It isn’t only in Puerto Rico, it is everywhere. The amount of violence you experience in your life as a trans person cannot be downplayed.

There is so much violence that I actually didn’t recognize that I had a violent life. It just becomes commonplace and that is all you’re supposed to expect out of life. For example, the fact that I can’t even rent an apartment without help even though I have been financially successful.

We need people to stand up for us. We are a small community and we need people to stand up with us.