Upper Dublin High School graduate explores gender identity in acclaimed documentary ‘Mala Mala’

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UPPER DUBLIN >> When Daniel Sickles was 22 years old, he was spending a lot of time in Puerto Rico, but he wasn’t lazing in resorts or dozing off on beaches. He was, along with a small film crew, exploring the more squalid areas of the U.S. territory, approaching sex workers in the thick of night and attempting, sometimes in vain, to better know them.

At face value, this might raise an eyebrow or two, but it was all research for what would become a celebrated, award-winning documentary.

Young and curious and only just cutting their teeth in the film industry, Sickles, now 27 — who graduated from Upper Dublin High School in 2007 — and his filmmaking partner, Antonio Santini, 27, had set out to make a movie detailing the lives and ordeals at the heart of the island’s transgender community.

Photo courtesy El Peligro Films Daniel Sickles, an Upper Dublin High School graduate who co-directed Mala Mala with Antonio Santini.

Photo courtesy El Peligro Films
Daniel Sickles, an Upper Dublin High School graduate who co-directed Mala Mala with Antonio Santini.

Now, five years later, and after roughly 13 visits to Puerto Rico, the directors present “Mala Mala,” a critically acclaimed and artfully rendered documentary that highlights the many faces and voices of gender transformation.

“Mala Mala,” which took a second-place audience award at Tribeca Film Festival in 2014, peers into the lives of nine transgender individuals — including drag performers, civil rights activists, a club owner, a future attorney and, yes, prostitutes — depicting in striking detail the pageantry, youthful excitement and occasionally sobering realities of their world.

For two young moviemakers fresh out of NYU, diving into this community was both exciting and overwhelming. Not only was it a culture they had no real experience of until then, there was the stigma associated with Puerto Rico’s trans community — something Santini, having grown up in San Juan, could attest to and wanted to explore.

“I thought it would be nice to bring some attention to this place that not often gets attention, whose stories tend not to cross the ocean to other places — they usually stay on the island,” Santini said of Puerto Rico. At the same time, he added, Puerto Rico can be “a place that is violent to someone” who dresses in drag or has transitioned from one gender to another.

Photo courtesy El Peligro Films Antonio Santini, who co-directed Mala Mala with Upper Dublin High School graduate Daniel Sickles.

Photo courtesy El Peligro Films
Antonio Santini, who co-directed Mala Mala with Upper Dublin High School graduate Daniel Sickles.

Santini and Sickles found some of their subjects online or through mutual acquaintances, but they also took to the streets, handing out fliers and approaching street workers. Sickles admitted he felt “a bit out of my comfort zone at first” when combing San Juan for movie characters.

“What we had been told over and over was that this was a very seedy area, like it was dangerous, so it was built up to be this thing that it really wasn’t,” he said. “I mean, it had that seedy air about it, but everybody is doing their own thing — no one’s trying to cause trouble.”

“And the sex workers obviously don’t want to hurt you,” Santini added, “but the reputation is that they’re monsters in alleyways.” It’s understandable then that “no one was interested when we initially reached out. None of them called us back.”

After time, though, stigmas lifted and the two filmmakers saw clearly that there was little reason to feel discomfort within the community — and vice versa.

Photo courtesy El Peligro Films Queen Bee, one of nine people whose stories are told in "Mala Mala," a documentary film by directors Daniel Sickles and Antonio Santini that explores gender identity.

Photo courtesy El Peligro Films
Queen Bee, one of nine people whose stories are told in “Mala Mala,” a documentary film by directors Daniel Sickles and Antonio Santini that explores gender identity.

Linking up with Ivana Fred — a high-profile transgender activist and one of the film’s nine subjects — helped Sickles and Santini make solid connections within the community.

“Ivana was our validator, our fixer, for that part of the community,” Sickles said.

Through Fred, and other subjects like Sandy Rivera, people started opening up their lives, warts and all, to the filmmakers.

The result is a visually striking, candid and wholly engaging account of people striving simply to be themselves, inside and out. “Mala Mala” is a study in courage and the “fulfillment of personal destiny,” as Sickles later put it.

“Maybe the best part, for me, through the whole process,” Santini said, “has been that we got lucky to be with people who had such specific journeys in their lives, people who have risked their whole lives just to become who they are. Had each person not had the courage to transition, which so many people don’t have, the movie wouldn’t even exist, because their identities wouldn’t exist.”

‘Two journeys’

During a time when Caitlyn Jenner fascinates audiences — through her controversial Vanity Fair cover story and hit reality series “I Am Cait” — and Amazon’s “Transparent” wins a 2015 Golden Globe for Best Television Series, Sickles and Santini’s film couldn’t be timelier.

Not only does “Mala Mala” tap into very current issues — transgender culture and the rights and freedoms entitled to those individuals — it offers an alternative view of those issues.

Responding to the massive attention given to Jenner earlier this summer, Sickles said, “Objectively, it’s great. There are people with more complicated, less known identities that are receiving the attention that they deserve. People are trying to understand them and trying to find their way to accept them.”

The other side of that same coin, though, is that Jenner is not representative of her entire community, Sickles added. It’s more a community of “people who aren’t receiving any sort of support; that typically die before they’re 35 years old; that have a higher rate of suicide, that are typically less educated. Those are the real demographics that we’re talking about when we speak about the trans community.”

According to The National Transgender Discrimination Survey, of the 6,450 transgender and gender non-conforming individuals surveyed, 41 percent reported attempting suicide during their lives. And there are plenty more statistics just as shocking as that one. Take, for example, the fact that 19 percent of survey respondents reported experiencing homelessness at some point during their lives.

Toward the end of “Mala Mala,” Puerto Rico passes a bill protecting LGBT individuals from workplace discrimination, which is framed as a victory within the film. Even so, Sickles said there’s still plenty of ground to cover.

“The bill that passes over the course of the movie, it only exists in not even two dozen states in the United States,” he said. “It’s a bill that only exists in very few places. So, for me, it’s almost like no one’s listening. It’s cool that everyone’s becoming more attuned to the conversation now, but this has been going on, has been a struggle even before the whole gay rights movement and the marriage equality win” on June 26.

Pennsylvania, for one, has no law protecting LGBT persons from institutional discrimination, even though lawmakers have spoken of such legislation in the past.

“There is no state law to protect gay or transgender people from discrimination at work or in housing or in business service or public accommodations,” said Lavena Layendecker, communications director for Equality Pennsylvania, a political action group.

However, she added, the Pennsylvania Fairness Act was recently introduced to the state House and Senate. The act, also known as HB 1510 and SB 974, are companion bills that would update the Human Relations Act of 1955 to include gender identity and expression and sexual orientation.

“That legislation has pretty broad bipartisan support,” she noted.

With no statewide protection of gay or transgender persons as of yet, many Pennsylvania municipalities have taken it upon themselves to adopt non-discrimination ordinances of their own. There are currently 34 municipalities around the state with such ordinances.

In Montgomery County, municipalities that have adopted ordinances prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or both include Springfield, Whitemarsh, Jenkintown, Abington, Upper Merion, East Norriton, Conshohocken and Cheltenham, according to materials provided by Equality PA.

For Sickles and Santini, such actions are essential to stripping away the taboos surrounding the transgender community and helping to ensure those people have the opportunity to realize their personhoods.

“Even beyond the trans community, something we were really attached to in the film and in [our subjects’] experiences was this fulfillment of personal destiny,” Sickles said. “They all have different images of what that is, but it’s an aspiration like any other.”

“The subjects always talk about how they have two journeys,” Santini said. “They have the human journey that all of [us] have. And then they have the trans journey.” And the hope, he said, is that they can complete their trans journey early enough that they might “address all the other hardships and challenges and ambitions that any other human would have.”

“Mala Mala “— which was funded in full on Kickstarter — will screen for one night at the Ambler Theater Thursday, Sept. 10, at 7:30 p.m. A Q&A with Sickles will follow. The DVD will be released Nov. 10.

Click here to watch the offical trailer for “Mala Mala.”

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