Afuera, a short film directed by Steven Liang and written by Steven Canals, shows the harsh realities undocumented transgender women face everyday. The film tells the story of Jennifer, (played by transgender Mexican actress Jennifer London) who by any means necessary has to survive working the streets. Amid her illegal immigration status, she’s succumbed to a drug addiction and is simultaneously forced to deal with the sharp parallels of being in love.
For Liang, it was pivotal to create a project that showcased these struggles because often times these stories go untold. “I really wanted to focus on the Latina transgender community because the undocumented process has never been talked about before,” he says seated on a small velvet couch inside the pressroom for the LA Film Festival, on the third floor of The Culver Hotel. “When you think about trans narratives, we don’t really think about an intersection of immigration. We see Caitlyn Jenner and Transparent, but we don’t see the other side with the struggles that undocumented and immigrant women go through on a daily basis.”
Within these struggles comes the big issue surrounding the incarceration of illegal trans people. Most are housed in ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention centers. According to a report released by the Human Rights Watch this March, of the estimated 30,000 immigrants detained in a day, at least 65 are transgender women. Most face sexual abuse and a slew of discriminations. Liang notes this is a subject he wishes to tackle further if the film or something similar expands into something larger.
“There are a lot of transgender sisters in the immigration detention centers. They have really really sad stories,” Jennifer points out, “but stories that can be good to show. So [people] can understand before they judge a person that is undocumented or from another country because sometimes they come running away from violence.”
Besides showing the main subject navigate an unstable life in the world of sex work, Liang also made sure to chronicle a love story all the while, as Jennifer is in a committed relationship with Pedro (played by Colombian actor Santiago Malkuth).
Within their love, you’ll see the plight of Jennifer struggling to oblige to Pedro’s demands of not resorting to sex work, something that inevitably doesn’t end up happening. Yet, Liang does what few have done, and that is to showcase a love narrative involving a transgender person, which in turn, depicts how difficult it is for a trans person to find love in a patriarchal society overflowing with anti-LGBT views.
Seated across from Liang sporting a black fedora hat, Malkuth echoes these sentiments. “I want people to pay attention to the love story because it’s really hard for a trans person to fall in love and have a long term relationship,” he says. “And the struggles that all the people who decide to love a trans person go through. That’s an issue that a lot of people are not aware of.”
In addition to this rarely told account, keeping the script in Spanish with English subtitles makes the movie feel a lot more authentic to the message it’s trying to convey. (This holds true with how diverse the cast is—the majority of color and subscribing to the LGBTQ community.)
Visually, the film excels in showcasing the many issues that keep Jennifer at the margins of society. Through dark and gritty imagery of Los Angeles streets, you’ll see her on a hunt for her vices with the desperation of still keeping Pedro’s love and surviving. One scene in particular hits home when she is seen at a taco joint in a seemingly rough part of town. There she confronts two other Latina trans women for her drugs. After the scuffle, one suggests she get out of selling her body in exchange for survival, while the other reminds her of the impossibility as she is undocumented.
Harsh? Yes. But that’s exactly the point London wants the masses to take with them after watching Afuera: how hard it really is being trans and undocumented. What’s more, she hopes people see Jennifer as human. “It’s more than just a transgender sex worker movie,” she says. “Transgender women are more than that. We are girls filled with dreams. And we want to fall in love with somebody, and live a life with somebody and grow old with them. I would like people to see the passion that Jennifer has for life, and the warrior that she is everyday.”
“We decided specifically not to translate it into English because ‘Afuera’ in Spanish means outside and it has the connotation of freedom and feeling liberated,” Liang says when asked of the meaning behind the film’s title. “It takes so much courage for an undocumented trans women just to be outside and live their lives like a regular person out in the open. That dichotomy was really intriguing because you have to live and in order to live you have to be in public.”