Mala 3

“You are your essence,” says Samantha, one of the subjects of “Mala Mala,” a wonderful documentary about the trans community in Puerto Rico. Samantha continues to explain that who or what she appears to be on the outside is not necessarily reflective of who she is on the inside, and adds, with poignancy and honesty, “I am whoever you want me to be.”

Filmmakers Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini present a largely unseen, often misunderstood, and marginalized subculture. The portraits showcase each individual’s humanity and beauty without a sense of exploitation. The activist Ivana Fred, initially talks about her anatomy, and showing off her beauty, but she is a key advocate for promoting equality for the trans community. In contrast, Alberic, who aligns himself with Regina George (a leader, from “Mean Girls”) wants to be a man, but he bases and creates his drag persona, Zahara Montiere, on Marilyn Monroe. Soroya, in contrast, talks about gender dysphoria, in which the person can’t recognize the sex they were born with.

Other significant personalities are introduced, and speak candidly about their situations. April, is working towards her dream to be on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which for her holds the key for success. Sophia’s goal is to be a “passable” woman; this will help her overcome her feelings of insecurity. And the sole female-to-male transsexual, Paxx, is touching as he searches for his gender identity in a culture where there is little to no information on FTM transitions.

Some of the interviewees in “Mala Mala” address the issue of masculinity and femininity in a macho, Latino culture, but the filmmakers generally celebrates the lives they present; there is no need to emphasize the difficulties further. The most dramatic testimony perhaps comes from Samantha, who describes getting hormone therapy on the black market, and the damaging side effects the drugs have, ranging from a lack of a sex drive to liver damage and possibly cancer. She bemoans the fact that she achieved her dream of changing her body, but then her body is not working properly.

What comes across best is the lack of illusions these members of the trans community have. Each is in various stages of transition, and they are seen in private and in public, telling their stories, which are all unique and interesting.

Sickles and Santini also know how to make the subjects comfortable, and how to present them in a very likable format. They film fabulous scenes of Alberic splashing around coyly in his bathtub, or Sophia, performing a song into a dildo, which is cross-cut with her getting injections. And April’s comment that people seem to equate being a drag queen with being a prostitute is useful for combating stereotypes, as is a remark about drag allowing the performer to express/be themselves, but through an alter ego that represents “you as a woman.”

It is also empowering to see the members of the Butterfly Trans Foundation promoting a March for Equality. Their efforts contrast with Sandy, a prostitute, who observes that most people think the trans community “only comes out at night” —a reference to another damaging stereotype that involves clubbing and/or working the streets.

“Mala Mala” shows how acceptance is possible, especially as Bill 238, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, is being heard in the courts. The passionate arguments the film’s subjects make in courtroom are as eloquent as Sandy’s later remarks about living with pride despite the burden of being trans. These are the chief points of this insightful, inspiring doc. Sickles and Santini wants to raise awareness and promote the achievements of these members of the trans community. For some of them, getting the chance to live their lives with the dignity they deserve is achievement enough.