When I sat down with directors Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini to discuss “Mala Mala,” their documentary which premiered last month at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, I took out my laptop and went over my questions one more time, as I always do.
It turns out I didn’t really need them, as the interview quickly turned into a striking conversation about gender and its many nuances, love and how we perceive ourselves.
Santini and Sickles decided to make what would have become “Mala Mala”- a raw and honest film about the trans community in Puerto Rico - after a trip to Austin, Texas, where they met a drag queen named Maggie McMuffins. The two filmmakers loved her performance and met with her the following day when Maggie told them she was married and had a daughter--and that she had just started transitioning from male to female.
"Three months into her transition, she was completely and utterly open with us about (it). Antonio and I didn’t know about gender... we’re not experts in that sense," Sickles told me as we sipped sodas in a film studio in lower Manhattan.
The questions that stemmed from Maggie's decision to transition, questions like ‘could she keep her job’, ‘what are you going to tell your daughter’, ‘how do you explain this new identity to other people’, startled Sickles and Santini.
"For us it was all those questions, (such as) what is it about modifying your body that makes you feel more in line with yourself... All these questions that I personally don’t have to deal with," Sickles said.
“Mala Mala” is their attempt at not so much answering these questions but portraying a community of people which defies strict definitions of gender as a binary system, and of gender identity, so that other people will be able to better understand it.
Usually, films, documentaries, books or other works addressing gender identity and related topics tend to include the views of so-called experts: Doctors specializing in what is clinically known as gender dysphoria, someone who feels trapped in a body that he/she feels is of the wrong gender, as well as psychiatrists, psychologists and academics.
“I think what we wanted to avoid... (was) placing some sort of medicalized understanding of what they are as some sort of top priority,” Sickles said. “Because there’s really nothing other than (people) naming you male or female that dictates that your sex comes before your gender.”
I felt this last remark by Sickles reflected how many young people feel about gender and sexuality nowadays: they don’t really matter.
Half-way through the interview we were joined by Paxx Moll, who appears in Santini and Sickles’ film.
“I’m a normal queer person – that’s me right here,” Moll said. The room filled with laughter at the apparent oxymoron - how can queer be normal? But, in fact, “Mala Mala” was all there, in that sentence: I am who I am… and there’s nothing unusual in me.
Moll is biologically female but identifies as gender queer.
“I just feel like I’m in between two worlds and I think I can be comfortable with that,” Moll said. “Maybe if the world would have been kinder I would have been born a boy but since I’m not (a boy) I don’t mind staying what I am.”
Many, within the gay community as well as outside, would probably ‘label’ Moll as a butch lesbian, a masculine-looking gay girl, but Moll rejected the categorization and said that “Not everyone has to have a label.”
“My only priority right now is to be a well known chef in my island so I can get out of (Puerto Rico)...It’s time to be a smaller fish in a bigger pond and kind of blend in,” Moll said.
“The body can be so limiting,” Santini said. “The make-up, the wig...These are just the tools that, Zahara for example (one of the film’s protagonists), uses to express his authentic self inside. We all do it, we all have objects that we use to empower ourselves.”
Sickles pointed out that there is “no language that we have right now” that is able to explain one’s authentic self.
He said the word ‘queer’ is beautiful because it applies to virtually anything, and is much more inclusive. “You can queer anything, from this table to your sexuality…there’s so much potential in that word, a potential that doesn’t necessarily exist in words like ‘gay’.”