“I don’t love you,” Junior, the nine-year-old protagonist of Venezuelan director Mariana Rondón’s movie, tells his mother in the emotionally charged scene.
You would expect a mother to dismiss such a dramatic statement and rebuke her son for speaking such nonsense but all that Marta, Junior’s mother, says is: “Neither do I.”
There’s something excruciatingly painful in seeing a mother rejecting her child with such blunt words. And Rondón is skillful in showing Marta’s discomfort at her own behavior when she knows she should love Junior unconditionally, and yet she can’t.
Marta, an unemployed single mother with two children, is afraid that Junior might be a maricon – a disparaging word for gay - because of his obsession for straight long hair and his desire to become a singer.
“In a way I defend her because ultimately she’s worried about her son’s survival in the context they live in,” Rondón told me during an interview in New York. “She’s asking him to be like her…She’s blocking her own femininity in order to survive in that environment. She’s very masculine, and she’s asking her son to do the same.”
The scene takes place - like most of the film - in an apartment in a decrepit building in one of Caracas’ sprawling slums, an unforgiving place that reeks of poverty and violence.
Bad Hair (Pelo Malo) is a film about gender and gender identity, but it also tells a much broader story about poverty and social inequality in a country in deep political and social turmoil.
The word “gay” is muttered a couple of times in the 72-minute film and, as I left the screening room, I thought it actually had little to do with being gay.
“I wanted to go beyond that and talk about what’s happening in Venezuela and it’s a country that’s currently very polarized,” Rondón said. “So when you have a political spectrum like that the intolerance is against everything. There is no respect for what’s different, in every sense.”
The film also shows how endemic corruption is in Venezuela, where bribes and favors are part of people’s daily lives.
To get her old job as a security guard back, Marta ends up sleeping with the boss.
At home, every time Marta catches Junior trying to domesticate his unruly hair in front of the bathroom mirror, she shouts at him with wild rage.
Every time she sees him dancing to music in a feminine way, or chatting with an older boy in the neighborhood, she’s overcome with hatred towards this creature, her creature, because he feels and looks so uncomfortably different.
Bad Hair reminded me of We Need to Talk About Kevin – a softer version of the 2011 British-American drama – as it tries to explain something fundamentally unnatural like a mother hating her child, or a child hating his mother.
Marta wants to love Junior, and she tries hard to accept him as he is. In a culture like that of Venezuela’s, which glorifies masculinity and where gender roles are deeply engrained in society, her son’s behavior goes against everything she deems ‘good’ and ‘right’.
However, there are other things at play.
The neighbours’ whispers and their mocking of Junior’s ‘girly’ behavior and the fact that Junior’s father died leaving Marta alone to take care of him.
But her discomfort with her first-born – she has another child whom she adores - goes deeper than that. It’s rooted in ignorance and fed by clichés about gender and sexual orientation that are not limited to Venezuela.
In the end, everything is turned upside down. Junior, the one who is ‘meant to’ be perceived as unnatural, unusual, ‘wrong’, ends up being the most natural element of the story whilst Marta’s hateful feelings for her boy come to symbolize the unnatural.
We don’t know for sure whether Junior is gay or what gender he identifies with- on more than one occasion he behaves like a perfectly ‘normal’ boy.
It’s the perception of non-conformity that disturbs his mother and others so much and that exemplifies, as it often happens, the fear of what is different from us. Fear of the unknown.
More than 85 feature films including documentaries were selected from 6,117 submissions, and will be screened during the festival that runs through April 27.