A question I’ve frequently considered regarding contemporary queer documentary: where is the new Paris Is Burning? Is it even possible for a spiritual sequel to arise or is Jennie Livingston‘s film so singular that there will never be anything else like it? Are all subcultures gone?
It feels like that, especially when you see concepts born from the movie like “shade” and “reading” tossed around on television from RuPaul’s Drag Race to various Real Housewives incarnations. The film does not even need a sequel but it’s just such an endearing, special part of LGBTQ cinema history that it feels wrong to not have another film like it.
Mala Mala could be seen as a very cool young cousin of the film. The movie is a 2014 documentary about gender variant persons and transgender women in Puerto Rico, a country that is “in America” but not necessarily within the same ideological spectrum. The film follows a group of characters—activist Ivana Fred, activist (and sometimes prostitute) Denise Rivera, drag queen April Carrion, the very well lived Soraya Santiango Solla—and explores their experiences as gender variant in a somewhat conservative Spanish country. There are families and languages and a similar feeling to Paris in construction without the constant need to explain and setup itself: the cultural context around this movie is one that does not require a coming out for a community. Contemporary audiences already know these “types”: the characters live within a canon. It’s the setting and solutions that are different.
For example: whereas an unspoken trade in Paris was prostitution, Mala embraces this aspect of the culture and seeks to understand why so many gender varying women turn to prostitution. You see the struggle directly and see people break out (and back into) prostitution. Moreover, there is a very real grappling with a country on the cusp of an ideological breakthrough, one that backhandedly accepts the gender variant but isn’t actively helping. With someone like April Carrion, you see a lifeline from Puerto Rico to America, that there is an opportunity to get out and live and be free outside of the cultural chains that bind.
The film is made by Anotnio Santini and Dan Sickles and has an incredible style to it. The music and visuals are so rich and, while tied to an early 2010s aesthetic, feels akin to Paris‘ presentation of title cards. You see a vision so complete, so thorough, so wonderful that you are constantly pulled into this movie. Santini and Sickles have made such a thorough cinematic world that it’s quite surprising it hasn’t been spoken about more. It’s such a good little movie.
At a solid 87 minutes, the film is a breeze to watch. It doesn’t keep you too long and, with so many rich characters, you are always left wanting more. It ends on a fairly high note, too. You can check out the film now on Netflix.