In a beauty obsessed and politically charged Venezuela, director Mariana Rondón made the award-winning film Pelo Malo (Bad Hair), a coming-of-age story about a young boy, Junior, living in the slums of Caracas. Using the racially and gendered topic of hair as a starting point, Rondón’s intimate film addresses much larger topics that currently affect Venezuela — a country with the highest amount of Miss Universe beauty queens and a population living with the idiosyncrasies of its socialist revolution, while its capital city is rated amongst the world’s most violent.
Pelo Malo has caused a wave of controversy both on and off the screen, exposing the often-hidden levels of intolerance. We sat down with Rondón to talk about filmmaking in Venezuela, beauty culture, and the inspiration for her film.
Why did you decide to name the film Pelo Malo?
Rondón: The term ‘pelo malo’ or ‘bad hair’ in Venezuela and the Caribbean is a commonly used expression referring to Afro-Latino hair. It’s also true that in Venezuela we are so mixed that people can be white with ‘bad hair’. It’s no longer specific to people of color but hair remains a serious business in Venezuela.
“I think the second most successful business in Venezuela after the oil industry is hair straightening.”
I think that the second most successful business in Venezuela after the oil industry is hair straightening. You always see products advertised with magical methods to straighten our hair — there’s hair Botox, plastic surgery for hair, all trying to sell a way to straighten our hair. And you notice how everyone on the street tries to have straight hair. So for me starting with hair was a way to start talking about our identity as a society, as a race, as a context and as a way to construct one’s own identity.
It is about much more than just hair, right?
Rondón: This is just a way to start a much larger discussion. On one hand, beginning with hair recognizes that Venezuelan people pay a lot of attention to their physical appearances. The world of beauty is extremely important but it is also a way to identify yourself as part of a race or a society.
On the other hand, I’m interested in going much further. For me the movie Pelo Malo talks about respecting differences, recognizing yourself, respecting yourself with your own differences while also learning to respect the differences of your neighbor. It’s not enough to identify yourself and determine who you are in isolation. You also need to respect others and their differences. That is why for me using this problematic term about hair opens a door to a larger discussion about tolerance.
The main character, Junior, is obsessed with straightening his hair for his school picture. Are there many kids like Junior in the slums of Caracas?
Rondón: That’s the critical point in Pelo Malo because the topic about wanting to have straight hair is only socially acceptable for women. That’s not a man’s thing. The Caribbean macho never straightens his hair. And that’s the drama and issue that this movie unleashes.
Why does hair straightening have to be tied to gender? This small detail shows us that besides the great vanity we have about our physical appearances, there is chauvinism and sexism in our society. The hair allows for other prejudices to rise to the surface that the other characters have including his own mother, grandmother, the neighbor, everyone.
He’s not the only one fixated on beauty. The young girl that plays his friend wants to look like a Miss Venezuela beauty queen for her school picture, right?
Rondón: In Venezuela there are two stereotypes that have been characteristic of social mobility to get out of the grips of poverty: if you’re a Miss Venezuela beauty queen or if you are in the military. For me, both stereotypes are absolutely empty and have been placed as determinants in a country and a society because they show the power of banality, and the superficiality of a fabricated beauty and the power of guns. At the core there’s a society that values superficiality and power. It’s terrible, especially when we’re talking about the fact that children learn these values.
How did you come up with the idea for this movie?
Rondón: My starting point was to work on something about respecting others and their differences. And I was very worried about the violence that is present in Caracas. I wanted to work from the most intimate place of violence, the one where no bullet can reach, but that can be just as strong and painful and that creates invisible wounds.
I started working on the violence of gestures, the violence in looks. I went out to the streets to collect all that violence and to notice how mothers were treating their children, how children treated their mothers, the neighbor, the other… and I created a terrifying catalogue of looks and gestures. And from there I started building the story.
“It’s amazing the level of controversy this film has caused. It is a good thing because many people saw it and began to open a space for discussion…”
I also tried to take it to a place where I tried not to judge the characters so that the audience had some freedom to identify with them. I tried to show all the starting points and let the spectator decide where he or she stands in this story.
Can you talk about the reaction from audiences in Caracas?
Rondón: In Caracas there has been so many different reactions. At first people were so excited when we won the Concha de Oro film prize in San Sebastián, Spain… then there was controversy about some of the statements I gave about politics. When the film was finally released in Venezuela more controversy began, people on their way out of the movie theaters would argue saying, “Don’t talk to me if you liked the movie” and “Okay, so I’ll never talk to you” or “We are not like the Venezuela in Pelo Malo” and “No that’s not true, we are like that.”
It’s amazing the level of controversy that this film has been surrounded by and has caused. It is a good thing because many people saw it and began to open a space for discussion and reflection. A lot of different people wrote about the movie from housewives to philosophers. It was not just the film critics. I think I achieved my goal of having the audience reflect about themselves.
What do you think U.S. audiences know about contemporary Venezuela? What will they think about this movie?
Rondón: I’m not sure of what U.S. audiences know about today’s Venezuela. But I did include news about contemporary Venezuela within the film, in the background, to place it within the context of what was going on at the time of filming in Caracas.
The news about the former president’s [Hugo Chavez] death is part of the film. All of that was very important for me to include in the film. It showed a specific moment where politics, which should be civic, became something fundamentalist and almost religious. But I don’t want to give more details so people can watch the movie and see why, but that universe and context was very important to include in the film.
Could you talk about the filmmaking process? Is it true that you did not give the actors a script at the beginning?
Rondón: Before we gave them their scripts we worked intensely on character development, which enabled the actors to understand the characters without having to read and be tied to the script. When the actors created the universe of the characters that is when we gave them the script; the actors almost automatically understood the script and story immediately.
I noticed that a portion of the funding from this film came from one of the Venezuelan government institutions, the CNAC. What was their role in terms of the content of this film?
Rondón: You see, the CNAC institute is the Centro Nacional Autónomo de Cinematografía. Since it is an autonomous national institute — it is not exactly run by the government. The CNAC in part receives funding from the taxes that everyone involved in the movie industry pays. Those funds come from all of us that pay our taxes. The film exhibitors and distributors, television, and advertisers also pay the film tax.
So, it is not money from the government — well, it is from the government since it is a tax we all pay — but it also has autonomy from the government since those are taxes from the movie industry. So we all participate, compete, and if you win, you use the funding for your film that is how we benefit from the autonomy that the CNAC has from the government.
The other institution that belongs to the government is La Villa del Cine, right?
“National cinema is the most seen cinema right now in Venezuela.”
Rondón: Yes, but we don’t have any connection with La Villa. La Villa is the government’s producer. Fortunately the CNAC is a space that promotes competition. And what’s most interesting about the CNAC is that its representatives are a mix of people. There are people from the government there, movie directors, producers, and all of the areas pertaining to the movie business. It’s a joint effort of the Centro Nacional Autónomo de Cinematografía where we are all represented: those that think alike, those that think differently, everyone. We’re all in there and I think that’s why it has worked. Let’s say it’s pluralistic.
What’s exceptional about the CNAC is that it enforces the 2005 Venezuelan Movie Law. And one of the most interesting things that the 2005 Movie Law has had in the last few years is the distribution of national films to the movie theaters. So for the first time in 27 years Venezuela is breaking audience attendance records. I believe they’ve reached a 20% audience increase for Venezuelan-made cinema. National cinema is the most seen cinema right now in Venezuela. I think we’re reaching 4 million people this year, which for such a small market like the Venezuelan market that’s huge, releasing 34 movies in a year. I think it is a result of everyone’s combined effort to boost the movie business.
We’re also seeing films from brand new directors.
Rondón: Yes, absolutely, because with this investment — from those taxes we’re all paying — is getting new people interested in working in film. It’s opening a lot of opportunities.
Also the Venezuelan movie business is becoming more diverse with different types of movies. I focus more on art house films, but there are also horror movies and comedies. There’s a little bit of everything.
Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?
Rondón: I don’t know. I ask myself that every day. Let’s say that since I was very little I had a very rough and adventurous life — or I assumed it was adventurous so I didn’t have to suffer — and I always thought, “Well, I can create a movie about this.”
My parents had certain beliefs. They were guerilla fighters back in the 1960s so let’s say that at the time my life was adventurous. I think we had my first real house when I was about 8 years old. So I kind of survived all those experiences by imagining that it was a movie. That’s where my need of creating films comes from.
“My parents were guerilla fighters back in the 1960s, so let’s say that my life was adventurous.”
That helps me understand the movie you made before this one Postales de Leningrado, about kids growing up with parents who are revolutionary fighters.
Rondón: Absolutely autobiographical.
Both Postales de Leningrado and Pelo Malo focus on very difficult subjects from a child’s perspective. Why did you decide to tell these stories this way?
Rondón: There are two reasons. One, because I haven’t grown up, so it’s the only universe I know. The other reason is that I’m really interested in that aspect of life because, again, I think that that’s when all the deep wounds are created and become irreparable. If things are not mended at that moment, if they are not healed there, there’s no way out. The wounds that children receive are irreversible.
I read that you studied in Paris and Cuba. Why did you decide to study film there?
Rondón: I finished high school in Venezuela and was invited to go to Paris as a nanny. While working as a nanny I studied animation there, but once it was time to enter college I couldn’t afford to study full-time in Paris. I went back to Venezuela and at that time Gabriel García Márquez founded the first film school in Latin America. The school was in Cuba, the International School of Film and Television in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba. So I took the entrance exams and went to study in Cuba.
Do you think studying in Cuba influenced your approach to filmmaking?
Rondón: I think one of the most interesting things of San Antonio was the ability to relate with people from such different places. Right now I can go anywhere in Latin America and I have a film team because I met them at that school, not because it’s the best school in the world. None of us were willing to receive any kind of political indoctrination. I mean the school was not created as a political project. What it was… was a very passionate place.
“Right now I can go anywhere in Latin America and I have a film team because I met them at that school…”
We continue to work together. For example, in our production company Sudaca Films we alternate the roles of producer and director between Marité Ugás and myself. Marité also is a graduate of the school. Micaela Cajahuaringa is the cinematographer for our production company and she too graduated from San Antonio. Lena Esquenazi is in charge of sound design, and while she did not study at San Antonio, she is married to someone who did. So we all continue working together even though we are from different countries.
Rondón: So if you take a look at the credits in our films from Sudaca Films, you can almost see all the Latin American countries in there.
Absolutely like José Martí’s essay “Our America,” right?
Rondón: Yes, and although we did not set out for it to be that way… it is something that really just happened. So what we achieve producing movies, you see, we cannot do that when it comes to distributing our movies. It’s very complex. It’s absurd not being able to easily distribute the movies in Latin America.
Right now Pelo Malo is making its way throughout Latin America. It is in theaters in Argentina and Mexico. It has been shown in Peru. We’ll be in Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay next January. So in a way we have achieved to make a project that is helping distribute movies all over Latin America.
Do you think that today’s challenge for the Latin American movie industry is not in making movies, but instead distributing and showing them?
Rondón: It’s very complex — I think it’s a challenge for everyone, not only in Latin America. We all face this obstacle. For example a French movie in Venezuela is only shown during a French film festival, if not, it will never get to theaters.
It is hard for all of us to show our movies in all these circuits, but despite this challenge Pelo Malo is now in theaters in Italy where there’s a great art house film circuit of movie theaters — and not dubbed — and the film is doing well there. It has been in theaters there for the past three weeks, and we just received the reports, that there are full houses in every city. It is because there’s an art house film circuit that supports it. I think we must understand that we have to work towards creating and supporting another way of distributing these films.
Does Venezuela expect to have a similar circuit of art house theaters sometime in the future?
Rondón: I hope so.
Let’s hope that someday we have more art house film theaters in the US too.
Rondón: We’re all hoping… but we are getting there. It’s such an honor showing Pelo Malo at the Film Forum in New York City right now, right?
Of course, it’s one of the most important movie theaters in New York.
Rondón: Yes it is.
Thank you so much for talking with us. I’ll see you at the opening night of Pelo Malo at the Film Forum!
Rondón: Thank you!
Pelo Malo (Bad Hair) is playing for two weeks at the Film Forum in New York City. On opening night, November 19, Remezcla will host a Q&A with the director following the 7:20pm screening.