Pelo Malo – Exclusion in Venezuela through cinema

It may be a case of art reflecting life then becoming life again in Venezuela.  The Venezuelan film ‘Pelo Malo’ (Bad Hair) which won the Golden Shell at the San Sebastian Film Festival has reignited the discussion of polarization in post-Chavez Venezuela. On receiving the award, the director Mariana Rondon commented that her work not only raises the issues of intolerance within families as is first apparent in the film, but is a reflection of the political culture and tensions in Venezuela.


This incensed some government officials, claiming that it was the Bolivarian revolution that allowed funding for this film, and she was biting the hand that feeds.  Rondon had said that she hates her country’s polarization. ‘I want that different people can discuss issues’.  The Bolivarian system of Communication and Information (SIBCI) issued a statement of the official position saying that ‘In the name of tolerance, the director issued harsh criticism of Venezuela ignoring that the Bolivarian government financed her films’ adding that in Venezuela now ‘everything is easier’. Another government official, Frank Lanz claimed that Rondon only spoke ill of the Venezuelan government to enter into the circle of international filmmakers in Spain as a ‘desire to be liked.’

The film itself is about a nine year old named Junior who has ‘bad hair’.  He wants to have his black curly afro locks straightened for his yearbook picture, which angers his mother. Junior tries more and more to change his look, much for his mother, but she rejects him the harder he tries. Because of this, he is eventually cornered by a difficult decision. Junior goes against the desires of his mother just to survive, and wants to become something that he wishes he could be viewed as, not just as an anonymous, dark skinned poor boy.

The backdrop is a built up area of Caracas, in a building which contains a multitude of families in a small space – that came out of the utopian fifties architecture inspired by the likes of Le Corbusier, that are now huge vertical slums. Using this confined space that was once a place of a dream, for a failed one helps bring to the fore the films issues of intolerance, sexual differences, social class and race all framed around the issue of Venezuelan polarization.

Much of the blame for the polarization highlighted in Pelo Malo is often firmly put at the feet of deceased former president Hugo Chavez.  It is true that it has been his representation of excluded groups, and pushing a more egalitarian agenda that his form of populist, us-and-them style polarization entered Venezuelan discourse, but what it is doing is highlighting historical and longstanding class and racial divides. Some opposition analysts, while recognising this racism and classism within the opposition ranks, blame Chavez for this situation. For example, Patricia Marquez of the elite Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Administracion (IESA) claims that it is Chavez who has ‘stirred up the beehive of social harmony’.  However, the Chavista discourse is in a two-fold strategy highlighting latent exclusionary systems while at the same time attempting to bring the excluded sectors of the population into the national project.  This has been translated into numerous policy initiatives that prioritize the needs of the marginalized and poor.

From this point of view, the call for less polarization is actually a call for the de-politicization and oligarchical control of the nation as it seeks to hide the stark divides within Venezuela. Very often pleas for ‘moderate politics’ dangerously flirt with such a post-democratic and de-politicized direction, where politics has abandoned the possibility for real change in favour of a technical administration of public affairs. It is the institutional defenders of ‘moderate politics’ that construct a Manichean view of society, dismissing virtually any disagreement as irrational and populist, and thus becoming more and more radicalized and exclusionary.

Therefore, isn’t it time to start dissecting the extremism of this ‘moderate centre’? One of the key terms in grasping this tendency is what we call ‘anti-populism’, a discursive strategy that needs to be studied in its own right, since it often generates its own caricature of the populist ‘enemy’.

Anti-populism refers here to discourses aiming at the ideological policing and the political marginalisation of any emancipatory movement. As Serge Halimi has recently pointed out in Le Monde Diplomatique,  ‘[a]nyone who criticizes the privileges of the oligarchy, the growing speculation of the leading classes, the gifts to the banks, market liberalization, cuts on wages with the pretext of competitiveness, is denounced as “populist”’. Indeed, as Jacques Rancière has put it, populism seems to be the ‘convenient name’ under which the denunciation and discrediting of alternatives legitimizes the claim of economic and political elites to ‘govern without the people’, ‘to govern without politics’.

To move this back into the context of the film, the director stated that

‘To me it’s essentially a film about the look; about how you look at each other, and how the other people look at you. But what I care about within these looks is the open space between them and the film viewer. I’m not telling the viewer to believe; I’m proposing that he finds his look; whether he’s fond of one or another. I don’t want to answer that, which I think is something each of us takes home to ourselves.’

This insightful quote captures the underlying aspects of the polarization in Venezuela.  The anger directed toward the upper class from the Chavez camp comes from a historical place and also one of less traditional power.  The elite have always controlled Venezuela, and now that the balance has somewhat shifted, the way in which people look at each other also has.  Historically class was elided from discourse in Venezuelan politics, but support for Chavez and now for Maduro is largely polarised along class lines. It was in fact the history of colonialism and elite control in Venezuela that created a polarised society, often covered up under the rent distributary behaviour of oil and the two party political pact leaving no room for dissent. Chavez’s rise therefore signifies a repoliticisation of social inequality in Venezuela.

The calls for depolarization are in fact a strategy to remove political legitimacy from marginalised social subjects who are in effect political actors who have challenged power. It is as Greg Wilpert asserts, this is a strategy on the part of the old established elite, removed from power by Chavez, to attempt to regain that power. The old elite uses its control of the country’s mass media to turn the middle class against Chavez, creating a campaign that took advantage of the latent racism and classism in Venezuelan culture. For example Julio Borges, leader of the political party Primero Justicia (Justice First), qualified those who voted for Chavez as ‘inhabitants’ not ‘citizens’.

And class discrimination also is deeply linked with race in Venezuela, with black and indigenous populations making up a larger amount of the poor population and suffering more discrimination. This comes from historical European discourse as seeing the white population as the epitome of civilization, and the others as ‘barbarous’ and backwards. In Pelo Malo, the main characters are from an Afro-Caribbean background and reflect the polarisation directed towards them in larger Venezuelan society within their own family and micro-relations.  The three generations in the film are all at odds about how they view themselves not only as poor and black but how the diverse, larger Venezuelan community does and should view them in modern Venezuela when class and race have once again become political topics.

In the end what this film does beautifully is show the how the polarization in Venezuela, which is obvious to all who visit, effects the everyday existence of everyone in Venezuela on a micro level. And the overreaction from the Maduro government officials is actually a misreading of the situation in the country.  Yes, it the polarization is the result of Chavez and Maduro bringing in the excluded classes from the cold, both discursively and with social policies.  But they should not be blamed for the social tension.  It is the traditional elite classes who refuse to accept this shift in Venezuelan society who to be blamed.  Their constant attacks and at times open hatred for the popular classes is the true polarizing effect.  There are calls for ‘harmony’ but this is the exact same rhetoric that was used in previous political regimes, rhetoric for oligarchical control. What a de-polarised Venezuela would look like would be a de-politicized Venezuela with a return to business as usual, in all meanings of the phrase. It is worth taking stock of this film to understand how polarization functions, how it affects the relations of Venezuelans, but also what it means in a historically divided on class and racial lines part of the world.


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