Summary: Directed by Sebastiano d’Ayala Valva and produced by Laurent Segal, Angel is the story of a former boxer turned transsexual prostitute in Paris who returns to the slums of Ecuador for a family visit.
Review: The first reaction of seeing Angel — a tall, muscular transsexual with cheek, breasts and butt “work” — were gasps from the audience at the 12th annual New York Latino International Film Festival. Equally as jarring was seeing how attractive she was as a man, chiseled body, structured face and nearly perfect features. Now some may say is a freak show. But after only a few minutes into the doc, the spirit of Angel glows. She is bold, confident and unapologetically herself. Many of us who have never changed genders couldn’t be as confident as she. Nonetheless, this is a heartbreakingly sad story about the lives many live in third world countries and the lengths they will go to escape.
Angel’s story is one that could’ve easily been exploited. However, Sebastiano d’Ayala Valva handled the documentary with care, humanizing Angel beyond her gender. We see Angel (who is also known as “Mujeron,” which means big woman in Spanish) as she travels home to Ecuador to visit her family in the unfathomably poor barrio of Guayaquil. It’s the kind of poverty that makes you think (no matter how poor you believe you grew up): “Thank God I live in the United States of America.”
Angel’s entire family is barely surviving. To make matters worse, her mother, brothers, sisters, nephews, father, cousins and random friends in the neighborhood all depend on her to send money back home — well aware that she is a sex worker. There is a creepy relationship we see with her brothers saying it’s better that she is a transsexual prostitute versus a drug addict because, “Then, we’d have to give him money.” Angel clearly says that her family is her number-one priority and she will do anything to save them.
Angel boldly struts through the slums of Ecuador. She stares down harassment from onlookers, snaps on children who mock her, letting them know she isn’t a “whore” like their mother and greets old friends, proudly showing off her soft breasts. Moments like these save the film from being a deeply depressing doc and give it some needed flair, which is obviously part of Angel’s personality, the darkness and the light. D’Ayala Valva shows no one will dim Angel’s light.
Angel also bucks the notions of what one might think of a transgender person. This is no dainty lady. She is sawing wood (again, this is the third world), ruling the house and considered a mother-father figure in the family. One of his brothers explained, “If he wasn’t gay, he wouldn’t care so much.” A striking difference from the tragic coming out stories we hear and see in the alleged progressiveness of America.
In one gripping scene, an old friend says in 1989 she helped him land a job. He was deeply grateful and asked for his hand. In an environment where you would think someone who is gay or transgender would be hated on, Angel received respected — and demanded it.
Another unforgettable scene is Angel seeing his father, for the first time in years, who doesn’t know his son is now a woman and prostitute. However, his father is nearly blind from an illness. Angel repeatedly asks, “Can you see me?” but he cannot. Then, his father asked him, “What have you brought me?” It begs the question: Does his family truly love him or only love what he can give? Angel is hurt in more ways by his kin, but through it all, you can’t keep a good queen down.
Overall, Angel is one of those rare cinematic gems that transcend celluloid and hits you right in the heart; you feel you are part of the story. If the film is in your area, it’s a must-see. My only complaint? The doc ends at a quick 70 minutes. There was still much more of a story to tell.
Angel was presented at at the 12th annual New York Latino International Film Festival.