On Saturday April 19th, Filmmakers Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini will premiere their documentary Mala Mala at the Tribeca Film Festival in NYC. The film takes viewers on a journey into the lives of drag performers and transsexual sex workers in Puerto Rico. Mala Mala also touches on the political climate of the island, and its affects on the subjects of the film. We recently met up with Dan and Antonio to discuss the process of piecing the film together, challenges they faced along the way, and the impact the Internet and Social Media had on making Mala Mala a reality.

By Conor Riley
Photographs by Justin Fulton

OAK: Can you touch on the role the Internet and Social Media played in creating the film?

DAN SICKLES: I guess the Internet and Social Media in particular connected us to everyone you see in the film, in different ways. Once we got hooked up with the drag queens through, we were lead us into the world of transsexual workers. We met a lot of them personally, but we [initially] found out about that world through Facebook. Once we got hooked into April (Carrion), we were able to find a lot of her drag sisters and drag queens on the island and establish a connection with them.

OAK: And when we were talking earlier, you mentioned Paxx’s story in the film…

DS: Paxx used the Internet to help create his identity. [The Internet] helped him find the words and the language to identify himself in a more nuanced way. Paxx discovered words on the Internet that aren’t necessarily available in mainstream Puerto Rican culture, like “gender-queer” and stuff like that.

ANTONIO SANTINI: For us, Social Media really helped us track their lives and now we knew what to do. For example, when political stuff started to happen [in Puerto Rico], we saw it on Facebook. It all happened really organically, and we would see it and be like “oh shit, we gotta go shoot this.” We would have meetings to shoot with people and they wouldn’t always respond. Then we’d go online and see that they were getting ready for a show, so it was kind of a way to keep track of their schedule, and a way for us to make sure that we were there when they were there. It also helped us connect with people that weren’t putting themselves out there to be famous. They were just people living their regular lives, who happened to have [social media profiles] online to communicate with their friends, but it let us access them and reach out and ask if they could talk to us and let us in. As opposed to the drag queens that were putting themselves out there and waiting for someone to contact them.

3O6A2445-5-EditDan wears the OAK Rib Panel Crewneck, Antonio wears the OAK Short Sleeve Crew

OAK: How do you feel the story you initially set out to tell evolved during the process of making Mala Mala?

DS: When we started filming, we were initially filming a lot of drag queens. It was a lot of their daily lives, and stuff like that. That’s probably what most of our footage is [comprised of]. Then on the second or third trip to Puerto Rico, we really had covered enough that we could look outside what was happening in the club. All of the transsexual workers work right outside the clubs where the drag queens are performing, so I think it was probably around the third trip that we were like “we need to talk to the sex workers.” They’re all in the same vicinity, so that was when we really branched out and tried to access them and get them involved in the doc.

I guess a second turning point is when the political element started taking off that we see in the last third of the film. That’s something that couldn’t be expected. They formed this organization right after this bill came to the floor of the legislative body. They fought and they won kind of unexpectedly. We were just there and had been with them enough that we were able to follow them, and that’s how we captured that. I think following the political stuff was us being available to them more than anything else.

AS: Before our third trip we didn’t have any more resources to keep shooting, so we had to start fundraising. When people asked us why they should give us money, it really forced us to ask ourselves “Why are we doing this?” It wasn’t on our dime anymore. It really made us think about the important stories and prioritize. On the third trip, we had all these goals, and all these people we wanted to meet, and we came back and were like “this is going to be amazing.” Going in, I felt like my level of understanding [of the culture] was very low, and we were constantly discovering “Oh, this is actually what it’s like.”

DS: Right. There was a point for sure where the research really started to pick up. We realized very soon on, we needed to have some sort of actual knowledge of what it was we were chasing. At the same time, I think the interviews in the film come from a really educational tone, which is something that I’m really happy about. We didn’t come into the scene or any of the interviews from the perspective of gender-theorists, academics, or authorities on the subject. It was rather, “Can you teach us what it’s like to be you from a trans perspective?” because we didn’t know. It really allowed them to articulate themselves the way that they wanted without a bunch of interference.

Mala Mala Poster

OAK: What do you think was the biggest revelation, or biggest thing that you learned about the trans community and yourselves, when you reflect on the entire experience?

DS: One thing for me personally is that I feel so much more confident in terms of how I understand my own gender. I’ve started to look at certain aspects of myself as maybe being a bit feminine, and I love those parts of myself now. And thinking about myself along those lines puts me in a more complex and interesting position than someone who identifies as something that exists inside a box. I think I’ve learned a lot about the ways we can play with, and grapple with, and fuck gender. Deconstructing gender gives us more room to play with it and understand it and have fun with it.

AS: For me, throughout the project, I think [our subjects] didn’t realize we were watching them living [over the course of 2 1/2 years]. It was like studying. I don’t think we normally do that to other people, so it was kind of a privilege being [so present] in these private lives. One thing about it was that we were seeing their transformations. They had something they desperately needed that was either going to lead themselves to killing themselves, or total depression, or to [becoming who they were]. And we were able to meet them on the other side, and see them about to become what they wanted to become. That power of choice was something I really didn’t understand fully until I met them.

DS: During one interview Ivana told us that in school people would ask her what she wanted to be when she grew up and she would always say a police man just to get by. What she actually wanted to say was that she wanted to be a woman when she grew up. That really reminded me that the trans experience is universal in a sense that it’s achieving a goal, and becoming what you want to be. It’s no different than that.

OAK: I imagine that’s what you want audiences to take away from the film as well.

DS: Definitely. [We want] to bring them closer to us.

OAK: What would you say was the biggest challenge about the entire journey of making the film?

DS: Antonio and I made it together, so no matter what we had each other, and we made the film over the course of three years, but I think one of the biggest difficulties during the process is this insane, acute loneliness, and fear that I had for the project itself. You’re working towards something, but you don’t know if it’s going to be relevant, and you don’t know if anybody’s going to like it, and you don’t know if people are going to pay attention. So while on one hand you have this partnership that’s providing all of this support, you’re also wondering if it’s also two crazy blind people in a boat going nowhere, and wasting their time and their resources. We didn’t have Killer Films or Moxie, or anyone watching dailies telling us if it was nothing or if it was gold. That for me, at least in the beginning, was the fear.

AS: To me, the biggest challenge was dealing with my ego. I think at the beginning I felt protective about Puerto Rico [where I’m from]. I felt like it was mine. I was scared of how it was going to be shown and who had access to it. Everything became about eliminating my ego and trusting that I had a team that was as capable – and at many times more capable – than myself. It became about trusting this team, and challenging each other.


OAK: Going off that, what would you say is the biggest reward of the experience?

DS: It sounds really selfish, but I remember the first time Antonio and I met and sat down and talked to a transsexual person. She was in Austin, Texas, and inspired the entire film. I honestly think there isn’t anything more humbling than sitting in somebody’s living room and having a super candid, open discussion about gender and identity and who they are and how they relate to it. In that dynamic, you can get to the depths of who a person is very quickly. I had so many conversations [like that] with people that I had just met [while making the film], that I haven’t had with a lot of people I’ve known in New York City for years. We would leave these houses after an hour or two and your mind has been blown and expanded.

AS: I don’t know what [the reward] is yet. We just finished. We’re breathing. Let’s see what happens. The girls are coming this weekend to New York so, I’m sure that will be amazing.

DS: It’s confusing too. It feels like we have a kid, and the kid is going to school, about to graduate from fifth grade or something, and it’s like the first time other people will be seeing it and judging it. It’s not ours anymore, but it still came from us, so we have responsibility for it, and yet it’s going to live some other life on its own with other people. So it’s weird. It’s confusing. It’s now everyone’s, while still feeling so tied to us.

AS: And we haven’t seen it so big on the screen, so I’m really scared. I hope it looks fine. We’re the only ones who are looking over all the technical details of it. So if we fuck it up, it was one of us. So I don’t want to disappoint Dan, Dan doesn’t want to disappoint me, we don’t want to disappoint each other. So we’ll see.

OAK: Well, all the press so far has been pretty epic, so that must feel good.

DS: It does. It feels validating. So that very teeny aspect of it is nice. But I think for both of us, it’s important to keep in check. The press is not everything. There’s still a lot of discussion about the movie that I hope will come out of it.

AS: And I think once the girls are here, it’s going to bring that to surface. It’s so easy to be here and not there and think of it differently. The second you’re in the environment you’re like “Oh wait, these are real people. They’re not characters that we casted.” And for [the girls] it’s a huge deal to be [in New York]. While it may be funny to see her on Facebook posting “I’m going to the premiere. Hollywood!” It’s like “Oh wait, why does she feel that way? What is lacking in her environment that she doesn’t have?” And that’s a quick reminder as to why we made the movie. What do these girls need? What does Puerto Rico need? It all brings it back around.

MALA MALA at Tribeca Film Festival
04/19/14 Bow Tie Cinemas 8PM
04/21/14 AMC Lowes Village 9PM
04/23/14 Bow Tie Cinemas 3:30PM
04/26/14 Bow Tie Cinemas 7PM