“Here in Venezuela, you could seem white, black or indigenous, but since we are all so mixed, we are prone to have ‘bad hair,’” says Venezuelan filmmaker Mariana Rondon in our recent interview (which has been translated into English) about the inspiration for the title of her film Bad Hair (Pelo Malo), which is premiering today at the Toronto International Film Festival.
In trying to interpret Bad Hair’s premise – a boy is fixated on straightening his afro-hair in order to pose as a long-haired singer for his school’s photo – is easy to presume that the provocative drama tackles issues of racism and homophobia head-on. However, Bad Hair, about a 10-year old boy torn between expressing his individuality and seeking the acceptance of his mother, is ostensibly titled.
According to Rondon, the phrase “bad hair” is a metaphor in the film for what is like to be different. Bad Hair is, above all, a story of the lonely and solitary struggle of a young boy who has particular ways. Junior “dances to the same music the other kids listen to, but he just dances it distinctly,” says Rondon, whose last feature film, Postcards from Leningrad, won several awards at Latin American film festivals in 2007.
For many of us, the title carries obvious negative associations rooted in blatant racism and self-hate, as some may argue when it comes to the latter. In Rondon’s film however, that connotation denotes the complex racial dynamics in Latin American culture. “I’ve always heard the talk and references to “bad hair,” because my mom has “bad hair,” explains the filmmaker, who also emphasized that the phrase became part of her family’s every day life.
But the film is about the boy Junior (Samuel Lange) just as much as it is about his mother Marta (Samantha Castillo), who panics at the thought of her son showing early signs of homosexuality. The mother and son relationship is troubled and fragile; Marta – overwhelmed by economic hardship - is also struggling to find work to provide for Junior and his younger brother on her own. To add to her worries, Junior’s black grandmother (Nelly Ramos) encourages him, further exacerbating his mother’s anxieties.
Read more about our very interesting enlightening conversation below, in which Mariana Rondon talks more about challenging the viewer, her intentions behind the film, and the title’s significance:
VM: Tell me about your inspiration for the film and its title.
MR: “Bad hair” is not meant to be an aggressive or pejorative term. Even young children are told “look, you have a little bad hair,” and it ends up being a term of endearment, something that at one point was, without a doubt, meant to be aggressive or insulting, What his mother thinks of him is only her perception and interpretation of his ways; but actually, he’s just different. At that moment, he is struggling with his desire to have his hair straight, but in reality, it goes deeper than that; his life is about many other things.
VM: It’s also about a boy seeking his mother’s love and acceptance
MR: Exactly, just like the dance scenes are narrative lines. During the first dance between Junior and his mother, which begins by Junior telling his mother “Because I feel like it,” and then the scene between Junior and his grandmother, in which she teaches him to dance in more of a Caribbean, traditional fashion. Those dancing scenes are there for character development.
There is another narrative line comprised of “stares.” I discovered actors with very powerful and particular eyes and gazes. The three actors - who play Junior, the mother, and his grandmother - have very beautiful, big and striking gazes. Junior’s gaze upon his mother as he watches her affections for his little brother; the way the mother stares at Junior, signaling what she doesn’t like about him; the way Junior stares at his neighbor, and lastly, the gaze of the spectator, which is almost my response to the viewer’s question of “What’s going on with you?” What really is happening is told through these “stares.” In fact, when Junior’s mother tries to “re-educate” him by subjecting Junior to watch her have sex with a man, that narrative line is re-enforced; so we can say that the most brutal, powerful and important scenes of the film are sustained over these stares.
VM: How does his “Afro” hair and race come into play in the film?
MR: I can tell you that the grand majority of my family members have “bad hair,” and in the movie I suppose, is not meant to be degrading, but actually affectionate. I can’t argue that there’s a lot of negativity in society about the perceptions of Afro hair; I can’t deny that, but perhaps they aren’t as aggressive as in the United States.
VM: Tell us more about the character of Junior’s grandmother. Why does she encourage him?
MR: The boy’s grandmother is manipulating Junior’s mother in order to keep him. There’s a power struggle between Junior’s mother and grandmother. I don’t think at that age, a boy can have a definite sexual identity. For the adult world, for its own benefits, it is capable of constructing its own truth, because no one really knows what his truth is. He is still a young boy.
VM: What about the male neighbor Junior visits everyday at the newsstand? Some people could interpret it as a “crush.”
MR: He lives within the female context of society. In Venezuela, as in many other Latin American countries, the sociocultural reality is matriarchal. Men leave or disappear, and this masculine figure he stares at, perhaps because he would like to be like him; he’s a sort of role model. I am not handing out a deliberation on his sexual identity. I am only presenting a portrait.
On the set, we had a joke amongst production members: if you decide to give him a definite connotation at that age from what you have seen, you deserve a vigilante uniform, because you’re putting him in a box.
VM: I don’t want to wear a vigilante uniform.
MR: [Laughs] The universe is vast and open, and what interested me the most was challenging the viewers to question their own prejudices. Just like it’s not a matter of judging the mother and saying, “Oh, she’s horrible.” I never set out to create a “bad” mother. She is a mother who struggles in a harsh economic reality. She also doesn’t have the mental resources to offer an adequate space for compassionate understanding. She’s frustrated and hurt by her circumstances. Real freedom demands true liberty of thought.