The Human Impact

Gender identity a top theme at Tribeca Film Festival

April 29, 2014

Music may have been the biggest theme at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, but movies exploring gender identity and sexuality also made a strong mark at the event, which wraps up on Sunday in New York.

Among them was “Mala Mala,” about the trans community in conservative Puerto Rico, and “Something Must Break,” a Swedish drama depicting the difficult love story of a young man whose looks defy gender norms and his straight-identifying boyfriend.

“The whole process of filming was really investigative, we were curious,” “Mala Mala” co-director Antonio Santini told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We had no other intention rather than understanding.”

Santini, born in Puerto Rico, and director Dan Sickles started working on “Mala Mala” over two years ago after a chance encounter with a Texas man who was starting to transition from male to female.

“Every day we put on these clothes and that says something about how we perceive ourselves. We hadn’t really investigated that for ourselves,” New York-based Sickles said.  “(We realized) you can play with gender and it doesn’t have to be threatening. The threat comes from outside and what we’ve been taught.”

From April, a drag performer at Puerto Rico’s Doll House who identifies as a man and competed in RuPaul’s TV reality show Drag Race, to transsexual sex worker and activist Sandy, who works on the street by night and by day advocates for a non-discrimination bill to be passed, “Mala Mala” takes an intimate look at the struggles facing people who defy gender norms in a society still rife with transphobia.

“The main reason why we spent so much time working on this… is because Dan and I felt like they are survivors, they have survived this life in this environment,” Santini said.

Santini said that turning to sex work is for many a consequence of the lack of resources available to transsexuals and transgender people on his native island.

“It’s easier to stand on a corner one night and get some money to get some hormones… Sex work can be just a medium to transform,” he said.

“If she shows up for work at a RiteAid or Burger Kind she has mismatching IDs, and what if someone decides they don’t like the way that she looks…that causes problem for the business,” Sickles added.

Even in countries such as Sweden that are usually considered more tolerant, individuals who don’t fit into gender-based categories are at risk of discrimination and sometimes violence.

In “Something Must Break,” people struggle with what to make of androgynous Sebastian, who ties his hair up in a long ponytail and wears make-up.

Sebastian, whose suffering and sense of misplacement in his own body lead him to find refuge in casual sex and prostitution on the streets of Stockholm, is often violently abused and forced to the margins of society.

Non-conformity and gender identity are central in yet another movie that had its U.S. premiere at Tribeca.

In “Bad Hair” (“Pelo Malo”), Venezuelan director Mariana Rondón tells the emotionally charged tale of a mother struggling to accept her effeminate son who is desperate to have his curly hair straightened and become a singer.

In an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation, Rondón said that the film, which is set in the capital Caracas’ sprawling slums, “is and is not” about gender.

“I wanted to go beyond that and talk about what’s happening in Venezuela, a country that is currently very polarized,” Rondón said. “So when you have a political spectrum like that, the intolerance is against everything.  There is no respect for what’s different, in every sense.”

Photo: Still from “Mala Mala” website. Credit: ”Mala Mala” movie

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