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'Pelo Malo' Director Mariana Rondon: Why Her Movie Hits A Nerve

'Pelo Malo' director Mariana Rondón on how her award-winning movie about a boy who longs for straight hair explores racism, homophobia in Latin America.
Samuel Lange as Junior in Mariana Rondón’s "Pelo Malo," or "Bad Hair."
Samuel Lange as Junior in Mariana Rondón’s "Pelo Malo," or "Bad Hair." Courtesy of Cinema Tropical/FiGa Film

For Latinos born with Afro-textured, curly hair or kinky hair - referred to as pelo malo or "bad hair" in Latin America and the Caribbean - their experiences can be quite intense and in many cases negative, as an Afro-Honduran recently told NBC News Latino contributor Raul A. Reyes.

Precisely because Afro-textured hair holds such a complex, racial history in our home countries, it can be tricky to explore as a topic. But in the skillful hands of Venezuelan director/writer Mariana Rondón, black hair is a window into Latin America’s soul.

The Venezuelan movie Pelo Malo, which opens Wednesday in selected theaters across the country, has generated controversy in Venezuela and grabbed audiences and juries alike. It has already won several awards, including top prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

Samuel Lange as Junior in Mariana Rondón’s BAD HAIR.
Samuel Lange as Junior in Mariana Rondón’s BAD HAIR.Courtesy of Cinema Tropical/FiGa Film

The plot of the film seems simple enough: a nine-year old boy wants to straighten his afro-like hair to look like his favorite pop singer—a Justin Bieber type - for his school picture. His unemployed single mom, who is light skinned, will have none of it; she also worries he might be gay. As the battle between mother and son unfolds, with the backdrop of chaotic modern day Caracas and the child’s paternal black abuela, this brilliant film exposes every layer of modern day Venezuelan society—its negated racism, its beauty queen culture, its urban violence, poverty, its polarized politics, and its deeply rooted homophobia.

NBC News spoke to the Ms. Rondón who is visiting New York for today’s film’s premiere.

Where does the idea of this film begin?

I wanted to make a film about respecting our differences, how it’s important to respect the right to be different and think differently. I also wanted to explore what happens when there is no respect for our differences-- the violence that surges and wounds that occur when these differences are not honored.

During the first part of my research I walked the streets of Caracas. Caracas is a violent city. But it wasn’t about gun violence. It was about tiny offenses that occur everyday and how these seemingly insignificant assaults—a look, a gesture, and a word—can wound. Then I started to build a story around these incomprehensible moments between people. I tried not to judge my characters I let them be who they were. I gave the audience the freedom to put themselves in the their shoes and identify with anyone of the characters based on what their own story.

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Why black hair?

Black hair serves as a portal. In the beginning, the boy goes to the mirror; the mirror is a window into the most profound part of our identity. We all have that thing we don’t like about us, a nose, a body part. It’s where we begin to recognize ourselves.

In that sense, we all have pelo malo.

Why did you choose to touch racism in a nuanced way?

I think that is why my small film has become so universal. There are an infinite number of themes that are there on the surface—there’s racism, homophobia, politics. In Latin America audiences are reacting to the politics of the film, in Istanbul to religion. Gays say that this is a gay movie. And recently, it was screened before a mostly black audience in Washington DC and people felt it was a film about racism.

How is life for blacks in Venezuela?

There is a discussion now in Venezuela about how Venezuelans are not racist, and we shouldn’t be because we are such a mixed of people. But the reality is that racism always rears its head. I don’t think it’s as radical as in other places, but its here and it’s deeply rooted. Racism floats in the air in Venezuela.

What about homophobia?

(It's) just like racism. We are allegedly a very open society and there is a lot of talk about homosexuality. But concretely, there is no civil right protecting gays, there is no progress. It’s just a discourse with words.

Is this a post-Chavez film?

The news that you hear in the film was happening as we were filming. And we shot quickly so that we could capture everything that was going on because it gave context to the story we were telling. And it wasn’t simply to adorn the film; the real news in real time was also a reflection of the story that I was telling. I wanted to show how politics transforms from the civic and becomes almost like a religion.

Why did you choose to shoot in the massive housing development?

Those buildings were built in the 1950s. It was the start of architectural modernism in Latin America—buildings were built in Caracas, Rio De Janiero, and Mexico City. And these particular buildings were designed by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier and they were an experiment in a great utopian society. And I wanted to use them to also ask the question about what happened to utopia? As a filmmaker they were just amazing to shoot, but also there is a confluence of all these worlds in those buildings, of experiments gone wild or bust. There are 568 apartments. Imagine how many stories are in of these apartments. As a writer this idea is fascinating to me. There are lots and lots of lives whose stories you can write about.

This is the third time you and your partner use children to tell a powerful story about society. How come?

My partner Marité and I own a production company and we take turns directing. The last film she directed and I produced was called “The Boy Who Lied.” (In) my previous film, “Post Cards from Leningrad,” I used a young girl. I like to use children because so many of our wounds happen so early. I am interested in that moment of a human being when we are being formed and also being wounded. There are so many wounds that are irreversible and they don’t involve a gun—it can be a gesture.

Film director Mariana Rondón, of the movie, "Pelo Malo" or "Bad Hair."
Film director Mariana Rondón, of the movie, "Pelo Malo" or "Bad Hair."

What do you think this film adds to the dialogue that is happening in Venezuela?

This film has been controversial in Venezuela. At the end of the screening the public would get up and say 'this is not our country, we are not racist, or we are not like that.' Then other people would say 'we are, and we need to recognize ourselves.' I loved that the film has opened spaces for discussion. From housewives to philosophers, everyone is talking about it. I think that anytime you open a space to talk in areas where we need to examine it is a wonderful thing. Maybe it’s a tiny contribution but it is an important one for the moment in history that we are living where there is so much confrontation.

The black grandma is the film is amazing. You rarely see black actors coming out of Latin America cinema.

Yes, and we have a large black population. The actress {Nelly Ramos} is truly magnificent. It was very difficult to find her. She was a singer. It was almost like an archeological casting to find the black actress. She should have been an actress all her life. In fact, all the actors are had never done films before.

What has been the most surprising thing about the reaction to your film?

How universal it is, and also, how the film seems to serve for people as a way to face their own childhood wounds. And how much people need the movie. I did this film for me. I had no idea how (many) people needed this movie.