Most nights, the sidewalks on the main avenues of San Juan’s donwtown sector of Santurce feature members from Puerto Rico’s trans community working the street corners. Dressed up in larger than life wigs and high heels, some of their stories have been told in local novels, films and photo series that have followed them as they patrol the night. “The Needle”, a new documentary directed by local filmmaker Carmen Oquendo-Villar, focuses less on the cruising that goes on in the streets; opting instead for a behind the scenes look at the underground beauty business on which these street workers rely.
Oquendo-Villar and her co-director José Correa Vigier train their camera on José Quiñones, who runs a
cramped cosmetic clinic out of his Santurce residence. Armed with his hypodermic needles full of collagen and hormones he becomes the gatekeeper to the ideal of femenine beauty that his transgendered and transsexual clientele aspires to.
“I met him while I was working in Puerto Rico,” says Oquendo-Villar, who divides her time between the island and New York City. “I was making a series of video portraits of people in the trans community, and then my co-director led me to him.”
Quiñones is more than just the man with the needle. His clinic turns into a gathering place where clients congregate before heading to the streets, exchanging make-up tips, gossiping, or simply enjoying a laugh.
“He’s like a spirtiual advisor,” says Oquendo-Villar, who spent a month taping him before spending the next three years editing the vast amount of material she had generated. “When you go to his place he sits down and talks to you. His clients go there and he helps them with their troubles.”
Puerto Rico Queer Film Festival
The 40 minute film just had the first of it’s back to back premieres in New York this past Thursday (November 15) in DOC NYC, a non fiction film festival that plays in Manhattan’s IFC Center. The documentary then went on to it’s second opening on Sunday in the Puerto Rico Queer Film Festival, which focuses on international films with LGBTT themes and issues.
“We wanted to have our Puerto Rico opening in the Queer Film Fest because of the story,” says Oquendo-Villar. “We wanted a space where Quiñones would feel secure, where there would be a receptive audience,” she adds of her film, which touches on a marginalized community in the island.
The Puerto Rico Queer Film Fest, which continues on through November 21, is on it’s fourth year. The Festival’s creators -Víctor González, Rebeca Fraticelli and Jaime Santiago- have programmed over 15 movies from over ten countries for the current edition. Local filmmakers are also in the BoriQueer sidebar, which is dedicated to Puerto Rican shorts.
The Festival has become a meeting place for the LGBTT community and cinephiles of all stripes in Puerto Rico, fostering debate and an ongoing dialogue about issues raised by the films it presents. “The Needle”, with it’s powerful subject matter and local cast of characters provides an important new perspective on that conversation.
*You can read a more extensive review of the film I wrote in Spanish here.