I almost didn’t interview Yasmin Thayná. Thayná, 22, is the director of the “Kbela,” an Afro-Brazilian short film about natural hair and beauty. When our scheduled interview time late one night in Rio de Janeiro at came and went, I asked her if we could reschedule. But on my way out of the posh PUC university, where we were planning to meet, I saw a skinny light-skinned woman with a boxy, wild Afro walking toward me. It was Thayná. I greeted her as if I had known her for years. Our quick chat revealed that she had a two-hour trek home that included two buses to get to Madureira, a working class black neighborhood in Rio. That alone made me ignore the time of the night (10:30 p.m.) and just muster up enough energy to do the interview. I also knew that the likelihood of me sitting down with her in person over the coming weeks would diminish. “Kbela,” despite being just a short film, would become one of the most anticipated Afro-Brazilian films in years.
“Kbela” is a breakthrough short film about black hair and beauty in Brazil. Its premiere at the Odeon theater in the center of Rio de Janeiro sold out. Articles about “Kbela” appeared in Brazilian publications that rarely feature Afro-Brazilian culture (O Globo and Folha de São Paulo). Thayná even appeared on Globo television several times.
I interviewed Thayná right before she became big (at least to me. She said that if she was actually big, she would be living in Leblon, the expensive neighborhood where PUC University is located). Over the course of an hour, Thayná and I discussed, in Portuguese, the making of her film “Kbela,” her racial background, the new movement of black women filmmakers in Brazil, and how the natural hair movement in Brazil is different from America.
You are actually not from Rio de Janeiro, but Baixada Fluminense (specifically Nova Iguaçu) right outside Rio. Can you explain the difference between Rio de Janeiro and Baixada Fluminense?
I think this area is very different from Rio because is very far from the center of the city . It’s also a dormitory city because the people sleep there more than they live there. People who live in Baixada spend three hours on the bus, train and metro to get to work in Rio de Janeiro. Then three hours again to return. They only arrive in the house to sleep. How can you study when you spend this much time commuting? But it’s much more community oriented than Rio because people will actually sit on their porches and talk. If I run out of sugar, I can go next door and ask my neighbor for some. I grew up mainly with my father. He always worked downtown in Rio and commuted. Now he works in Jacarepaguá as a doorman.
How did you start making films about hair?
So when you were younger, didn’t you think of yourself as black? How is that possible?
I thought that something was wrong with me because people would always say to me: “You are so pretty because you have light skin and you have a fine nose. But your eyebrows and your hair.” My family would say this to me. To be black is to be dark. At the same time, I did not have white people’s hair. So I would wonder, “what am I?” People would say that I was “morena,” and several other categories.
There is a scene in Kbela the film that comes from your own life, the moment when you cut off your permed hair. Can you describe this moment for us? Why is it so important in your life?
I have two friends, Bruno Duarte and Carla Cris Campos, who are black people and ever since I have known them, I have seen them as Kings and Queens. They are confident and extravagant and they speak with such strength. One day I said to them, “I have a problem. I don’t know this body I have. I need a new body.” Carla asked me if I wanted to cut my hair. I told her yes. I went to her house and she sat me in a chair in her room. She gave me a mirror, got some school scissors and the proceeded to cut off my dry hair while singing songs in Yoruba and talking about black culture. I didn’t look at myself in the mirror until just four years ago. I was really sad. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself. This process of whitening yourself, putting chemicals in your hair made me physically sick. I started going through this process when I was five years old.
When she cut off my hair, I felt like I was reborn. I started to see my hair as a beautiful thing and I realized that my hair was very attached to my self-esteem. I could finally look at myself in the mirror, which I had stopped doing when I was an adolescent.
Five years ago I couldn’t imagine being here at PUC, and having the power to speak my opinion. But when I stopped putting chemicals in my hair and cut it off, I reconnected with my hair and it helped me to become who I am today.
So after this moment in your life, you decided to write a short story- Mc –Kbela, which actually came before the film.
Exactly. I wrote this story and when I published it, so many young girls wrote me because the story said, “this is my story too.” I knew that my story was a story of so many people. This is the story of practically every black woman in Brazil who begins to reject relaxed and straightened hair.
Where does the word Kbela come from?
When I was younger I used to teach film at a school in Baixada Fluminense. I would show up to the school and they would think that I was a student because I looked so young. One day I was walking down the hallways and a young boy yelled “There! There is MC Cabelo (MC Hair).” I really liked it because every time I cross a corner in any part of the city people always say, “Ah, comb your hair.” I hear this every day, “comb your hair, You don’t wash this hair?” Sometimes in the train there are women who will give me cards for hair salons. I always tell them that I feel pretty, thank you. They really think that I need help. But when this little kid said MC Cabelo, he was mixing two important things—that of the MC or Minister of Ceremony and Cabelo (hair). For me, that was a compliment. So when I named the story Mc K-bela it was in homage to this kid. Cabelo became “Kbela” because I wanted to communicate that the story was a process of hair and beauty – Cabelo (hair) + Beleza (beauty) = “Kbela.”
So how did Mc K-bela become “Kbela”–the film?
My friends and I had the idea that it would be interesting to distribute “Kbela” in another type of media that would work well with text. We decided to make a video with an actress or non-actress doing a dramatic reading of the story. So we sent out some messages for actresses and non-actresses who could participate in an independent production for two days. More than 100 young women wrote me by email asking to participate. I knew then that it could not be a dramatic reading. It had to be a film.
So what type of film is “Kbela?”
“Kbela” is a film that speaks about popular sayings like “Cabelo é bombril (Hair like steel wool),” but through images. The images help people to understand how people speak about hair and beauty. It says “look at what you are doing. Look at what you are saying.” But it says this with joy. I have a friend who said, “Us black people have to be exactly like capoeira. We have to waddle to one side, and waddle to the other side until we finally enter the circle and dance.” And this is our grand response to the question of beauty. This is “Kbela”. It waddles until finally in the end it starts to dance, literally.
So this 20-minute film doesn’t have any dialogue. Why not?
This film is really loud. The images are bold. All you need to do is look at it and you will understand it. You don’t need any text. I was preoccupied with turning the verbal into images. Let’s take the saying “Cabelo é bombril.” Hair is like steel wool. Steel wool is a sponge that you use to clean pans. But people don’t think of this when they call it hair of steel wool. Thus, the film shows a woman cleaning a pan with her hair. Do you need any dialogue to understand this? Nope.
How did you finish the film so fast?
It wasn’t fast. It took three years to finish the entire process. And for a short film that’s a lot of time. It took so long because I was assaulted and I lost the images that I had already filmed. But this experience also benefited me. In this extra time that I had to redo the film, the film actually became stronger and more potent. It’s almost like life. When you become older you evolve and improve.
The marketing of the film was excellent. Unlike the U.S. “black” marketing is very rare in Brazil. How did you put together the marketing for this film?
When we were launching the film, the team paid close attention to every single detail of marketing. I think the reason our marketing was so successful was because of the theme—natural hair and beauty. People were so interested in the film that we never had to sponsor a post. It was all organic and word of mouth.
I see the marketing less as just promotion of the film and more of an affirmative statement about racism and inequality in relation to race and gender. I think that we need new narratives because in Brazil we are saturated with traditional media. This is something that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talked about: The danger of just one history. In Brazil, there are always young people who are creating blogs and portals to speak about other places and other subjects, and to put pressure on this hegemonic narrative. I think it is important for us, black people, to occupy these spaces of power so we can construct a narrative of us. I’m talking specifically about communication because for me it is more powerful than politics. Communication can change a perception about something or someone, and show people that today are new times and that we need to respect the differences of people.
I’ve seen at least three short films black women in Brazil in the last three months. Is this a new movement?
There was a study by the state University of Rio de Janeiro that analyzed Brazilian film from 2002 until 2012. There was not one black female director or screenwriter. And we live in a country that is majority black. Today that number is increasing with more young black women making short films in Brazil. There are women who are making films in Bahia, Aracaju and the rest of the Northeast. They are fighting Veja magazine, which is a magazine that always criminalizes black people and poor people. When we were making the Kbela film, we said that because it’s a film about black women we need to have black women producing the film. Therefore, the production is full of black women and there is even a black transgender woman.
The natural hair movement in Brazil seems so much different than that in the USA. Can you describe it to me? How did it start?
The natural hair movement here is very political because it’s linked to affirming a black identity. Why? Because every image and historical and political narrative in Brazil is that white is superior to black. Sometimes when I watch TV I think I am in Belgium. I view the natural hair movement as one that is speaking about racism and it expresses the sentiment that we “exist.” Here in Brazil there is this thought that we are all equal and that there is no difference between people, but it’s not really like that. The natural hair movement wants people to know that we aren’t sexual objects (women) or thieves (men). We are university students and doctors and we want to be other things.
When did you know you had produced a special film?
I that I had produced a special film knew when I saw young women leaving the theater crying. Also when they would speak to me they wouldn’t just congratulate me. They would also thank me. To make a film and receive a thank you and a congratulations is a major accomplishment. That means you just didn’t make a good film, with a good script and good direction. You made a film that made people feel a certain way. Whenever people give me feedback about the film, they always talk about their own personal experiences. Special films are those that make people feel emotion and elicit a reaction that connects to the personal experience of each person.
What are your plans for your next project?
I have plans to do a feature film. I can’t say too much about it besides it being about the rap scene in Brazil. It’s for 2016/2017 and we are already in pre-production.
What is your dream with film? Do you want to direct a Hollywood film?
Right my greatest dream is to direct a film that is distributed in the shopping mall cinema in my city, Nova Iguaçu. I hope that I won’t have to wait a long time for this to happen. I also hope that black people who want to do film in Brasil will have resources to make films and have them distributed. Right now it’s difficult for black people to make films because we are deprived of public resources to do so. I always wonder why are Afro-Brazilian films are not being distributed or shown at the large festivals. People say that we are creating our own networks and I agree, we are. But no one should be prevented from the main festivals of the country and from representing Brazil in the large festivals throughout the world. We should have this right as well.
Kiratiana Freelon is an author and travel expert living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Follow on twitter: @kiratiana