By Jude Warne.
Mariana Rondon is an expert articulator of youth. In her award-winning 2007 film Postcards from Leningrad she tackled elements of her own particular young person’s experience. Now in her latest release, Bad Hair, she offers up a tale of misunderstanding and miscommunication between one original and resilient child and the adults and world around him. It is the story of a nine-year-old boy finding himself, only to meet oppression from his mother once he does, all amidst a grey and impoverished neighborhood in present-day Venezuela. Junior, the young person, becomes obsessed with straightening his wildly curly hair in order to look like pop musician Henry Stephen. Junior’s mother does not like his interest in hair-straightening. Or in Henry Stephen. Thus, a brilliantly authentic power struggle ensues, one in which Junior must decide which is more important to him: defining and expressing his own personal identity, or pleasing his mother in order to earn her love.
In conversation with writer-director Mariana Rondon and producer Marité Ugás, we discover more about Bad Hair’s influences and its stellar treatment of parent-child resentment, familial control, youth-identity discovery, and the ongoing presence of violence on the streets where children play.
One of the opening scenes features Junior submerged in the water of his bathtub and we hear and see the world from his perspective there, removed a layer or two from reality – this reminded me of the swimming pool scene in The Graduate, when Benjamin jumps into his pool with scuba gear on, which highlights his separation from the world of his parents nearby. Were you inspired by any specific youthful-confusion films such as this one?
Mariana Rondon: I’m going to watch The Graduate again now! Of course I didn’t have any single film in mind here but there are connections with some films, such as those in the universe of the Dardenne Brothers. That’s basically it. I was working a lot with the actors, rehearsing the work.
How did your own experience of childhood, and some of the transitional moments from childhood into adulthood that you might have experienced, affect your work on this film? You had an interesting situation, right, as your parents were members of the guerilla army? That’s a very mature issue, compared to what the average American kid nowadays has to deal with.
MR: I made another film that was completely autobiographical (Postcards from Leningrad), but in this case it was much more limited, perhaps, to the life of the neighborhood and the buildings. I grew up in one of those and I was always fascinated by the number of stories that could happen in those high-rises. Actually, the story for the film was inspired by taking, stealing gestures and people’s faces from public spaces. So that was what motivated me, what initiated this process, the gestures that reflected some kind of violence. So I was possibly intrigued by how to do this, because each gesture expressed some kind of violence, and how to depict urban violence infiltrating the domestic sphere in an intimate way.
The innocence of children is so apparent in the film – Junior and his friend live in an impoverished world, surrounded by the prison of an apartment complex, yet they still find excitement and beauty in things, like music. They can still play – it is the adult world and its intolerant restrictions that get in the way.
Marité Ugás: As you were talking about the movie reflecting her personal life and stuff, I think one of the simplest moments in the films of Mariana’s is that kind of point of view she gives to kids. Like when in this film the children make dolls out of matches. In previous films by Mariana, also working with kids, depicting these kind of imaginative and creative kids, these little moments are Mariana’s stuff.
Where did you get the idea to use that fantastic song, Henry Stephen’s “Mi Limon, mi Limonero”?
MR: It’s a song that even though it’s from the seventies, everybody in Venezuela knows it, and my generation, we all learned to dance to that song. I remember very vividly when I learned to dance to that song, so in that scene when the grandmother teaches Junior to dance, it had to be that song. It also happens that he was the first Afro-Venezuelan singer to become a star.
Speaking of the use of dance in the film, that scene in which the mother and Junior are dancing around the apartment, and she gets very aggressive with that repeated line of their made-up song, and then it scares him – it reminded me how the actions of adults can really scare children a lot and can be very confusing because they’re often misdirected. Junior’s mother carries around a lot of anger and resentment. She deals with it well, but she doesn’t have any place to express it necessarily.
MR: I wanted to work that scene on two levels. On one hand, Venezuela’s such a dancing country, people dance a lot, and the dance can go from something festive to something opposite, with tension and drama. And actually that scene, on the other hand, came from rehearsals. When they were rehearsing that scene I realized that’s when they “got” the characters.
MU: They were not rehearsing that song, it did not exist. They were rehearsing and made up the song, made up the situation. Mariana took up that situation.
MR: That’s when I realized they had the roles.
We see moments in the film when the mother and grandmother are trying to control Junior; they’re using him to work out their own relationship, or to exhibit their own control. Do you think that that happens a lot in life? I mean, I think it does, but do you think it’s a problem everywhere – because we can’t control these bigger problems in our lives, but the things we can control, the people we can have power over, we end up abusing them somehow, psychologically?
MR: I see it as a triangle of power, in which each side, the mother and the grandmother are trying to fight for their own needs. In the particular case of Venezuela, and also the rest of Latin America, it’s a macho society, where the education of children is in the hands of the women. This has an effect because the women are educating children with these macho principals, perpetuating a macho society.
It’s interesting too how, at one point the grandmother says something along the lines of “Well, at least he isn’t playing with guns,” in regards to Junior’s fascination with the grandmother’s music, and his hair, which was a great point – but then when we think about it, the character of the mother would relate more to Junior playing with guns, because it could connote the masculinity she seems to want for him.
MR: As I see it, Marta, the mother, is imposing upon Junior the mechanism that she uses to cope with life, which is repressing her own sensuality, and wearing this masculine gear, the security guard uniform, that’s a way she has to impose this. His response was more on a symbolical level; on a real life level, there are guns on the streets of Venezuela. Having a gun means risky business, instant death, it’s not a game.
Do you think that because Junior is raised in a single parent household at the time of the film’s story, the mother not having an adult to work off of and discuss things with, that she turns Junior into more of an adult, maybe unintentionally? I feel like with couples you work off of each other and work a lot of issues out with each other, and to not have that other adult voice that can exist on that realistic level can result in more anger.
MR: I don’t know exactly, but in this context where they live, this precarious life they live, definitely you have to grow older faster, you can’t afford to be innocent for that much longer, when confronting such harsh reality. There’s something I consider in the film, and that’s that Junior has the potential to take on the violence that the mother is imposing upon him. For example, in that sequence where Junior tries to put the hair clip on his younger brother’s hair, that’s when we kind of see how he’s innocent of violence toward his younger brother – violence is put upon him by outside forces.
With the other child in the film, Junior’s baby brother, we see the mother being very careful and caring, giving a lot of love and attention to the baby, that being very different from how she treats Junior. It makes you wonder when that transition will happen for the baby. The scene highlighted the different types of love that the mother is capable of.
MR: That’s going to change, that relationship is going to change, when the baby starts becoming a person, saying to his mother “I’m different from you, and I have different needs.”
My favorite character was the mother Marta too, just because we see her in these violent situations, treating her son Junior poorly at times, but then she spends so much of her time out on the city streets trying to get her job back, all for the purpose of taking care of her family.
MR: I actually think Marta is living within limits, and I do defend her because she’s trying to do the best with whatever tools she has. She thinks she’s right when she takes Junior to the doctor. She’s trying to do the best with whatever she can.
That was actually a great reality check, to have another adult reviewing Junior’s situation to conclude “No, there’s nothing wrong with him, he’s completely fine.” Up until then we really only have Marta’s voice for an adult voice. Did you work a lot with the actors beforehand, do a lot of prep building? Because their relationships were so natural.
MR: Yes we did work a lot, about three or four months, not on the film per se, but on the character relationships.
The title is so fantastic, can you talk about the origin of the phrase “bad hair?”
MR: In Venezuela and the Caribbean, everybody has “bad hair.” And after oil, the second largest industry in Venezuela is hair straightening. Of course that industry is geared toward women, so when a man is interested in hair straightening in a macho society, that’s when the problem starts.
What’s your next project?
MR: We (Mariana and Marité) have a production company and we are both filmmakers, directors, so we take turns. With Bad Hair I directed and Marité produced, and now it’s her turn. She will be directing and I will be producing.
Do you know what it is yet?
MU: We are working on it now. While we’ve been showing this film around, we’ve been writing the new script. But also Mariana also has –
MR: I have this installation piece, in a space in a neighborhood building, where the spectator comes in with a sheet of paper so he/she can fling it out into different apartments and can see what’s going on in each. Also what’s interesting is the use of sound – you can hear what’s going on, the whispering sounds. It’s in Venezuela, but it’s traveling around. It’s kind of a Rear Window type thing.
Jude Warne is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.