Catching Up With Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles of Mala Mala

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One of the surprise hits of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival was Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles’ documentary, Mala Mala, set in Puerto Rico and exploring the lives of nine transgender people (including Jason Carrion, pictured here, who competed in Ru-Paul’s Drag Race as April Carrion). The two directors sat down with us at the festival to discuss the provocative issues the film raises about identity and authenticity, and not just for transgender individuals.

Many film interviews start out with a question about how the project came together. It’s a predictable opening, but it’s necessary to the article, and it often reveals some interesting areas to pursue further. I expected that the answer to that question would prove more interesting with Mala Mala than with most films, and I wasn’t disappointed.

“Three and a half years ago,” Sickles recalls, “Antonio and I were in Austin, Texas. We were hanging out one night, and a drag show kind of took over the club. Maggie McMuffins performed in the competition, and after the competition, we went up to her, told her she was awesome, and asked if we could hang out. There was something alluring and exciting about her. She invited us to her house in northern Austin, and we walked in and sat in her living room. We ended up spending the entire day together.”

McMuffins turned out to be an ideal introduction for the pair to the drag queen world. Not only was she an experienced entertainer who thought deeply about the phenomenon and enjoyed talking about it, she was in the midst of a big change herself. “She’s an incredibly transparent, open person,” Sickles explains. “And we asked her to educate us, because we had no idea what we were stepping into. That turned into her transitioning; she was three months into her transition. She was still married to her wife, and they had a nine-year-old daughter. She was in her mid-thirties making this transition. The whole story kind of unfolded before us. Neither of us had ever been in that situation before, sitting in their living room and having such a candid conversation about who they are. From then on, it was like, let’s pursue this.”

It was quite a shock, seeing this McMuffins, as opposed to the McMuffins they had fallen for onstage. “At the club, she was like a spectacle,” Santinin says. “It seemed courageous to do that, but it was a performance. At the house, it was a different story, and we started wondering what the difference was between what happened onstage and what happened at home. Inside, there was no makeup; there was no costume. She was in her house clothes. Her child was in the backroom, and she was telling us not to talk too loudly about certain things because she was there. Yet, all these items about her new life were lying around. Her life was clearly in transition. We wanted to understand why there were all these consequences for this decision, why, if she was choosing to transform her gender, why all these other things had to collapse.”

Those concerns led directly to Mala Mala. There’s a great scene in the film where two of the performers are talking about the moment where they realized that there onstage persona was not actually a separate person, but was part of themselves. But we all, gay or straight, professional performer or not, drag queen or not, we all have different selves that we play out. This world is something that, writ large, is something that plays out in all of our lives.

That led to some self-examination by the pair of directors. “I’ve begun to think of gender as just another aspect of the identity we create for ourselves,” Sickler says. “If I ask you who you are, you might introduce yourself as a journalist before you do as a man, or as a husband. We’re all working on those identities, too. They can be called masks, but they also show up in our aspirations of who we want to become. I know that for Maggie, to see her in the middle of that was to see something she was aspiring to and working toward. It wasn’t binary; it was a process.”

“The thing that we kept confronting,” Santini adds, “through all the subjects, was the idea of the authentic self. What is the self that you feel inside? I think the road to discovering that authentic self requires a lot of dress-up and play. We saw ourselves in that. I remember one day Daniel saying to me, “Hey, I’ve seen all your selves. And it’s okay to be yourself.” In these three years, we were ourselves also growing up, and trying to figure out what our authentic selves were. And watching them constantly, and how they were so free to play around really inspired us to be more playful with ourselves, and not take ourselves so seriously. And also to discover that there’s a lot of possibility in what you can do.”

It also gave the pair a new appreciation for the complexities of human nature. “We’re not static beings,” Sickler muses. “We can contain multiple things, and that’s okay. There are aspects of ourselves, or our personalities, or how we perform our gender, that might be masculine or feminine, and both of them can be us. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. If you really start to think of our selves and our identity in that way, it creates a more inclusive environment for everybody.”

In the end, it’s those questions of identity and authenticity that challenge viewers of every stripe, whatever their sexuality or gender. “We can look at a drag alter ego as a separate persona,” Sickler says, “or we can think about how it also bleeds into who we are when we’re not wearing makeup onstage. I think both of them are absolutely true. We have all of these words, but none of them add up to expressing who we truly are. And that’s what makes the theme universal.”