"La Corona" reveals beauty & humanity behind bars

The crowd explodes to a boisterous roar as they cheer for triumph. With a victorious smile plastered across her face, she stands in confidence as the gleaming crown is placed upon her dark, long auburn hair. Meanwhile, the striking raven-haired lady standing next to her forces a dry smile in an attempt to suppress her tears. A sense of loss, now completely discernible on her fully made up face, has washed over her.

It’s just like any other beauty pageant. Preparations have been put into action weeks before the event. Contestants work tirelessly to achieve perfection. Judges are chosen to provide fair assessments of each competitor. Immaculate Hair, make-up, costumes, flawless smiles, and long gowns are central to the end result of collaborative hard work.

Though, if you look closely, you will soon realize that it is not, in fact, just like any other beauty pageant. For this particular spectacle occurs in what might be the most unusual place one may imagine: in prison.

“La Corona,” the poignant documentary co-directed by Isabel Vega and Amanda Micheli, offers the viewers a window into the heavily fortified walls of Colombia’s National Women’s Penitentiary in Bogota as prisoners, guards, and the warden prepare for the anticipated and extremely competitive event.

Last Thursday, October 9th, SMC students had the privilege of attend a private screening of the previous 2008 Oscar nominated short film in the Art Complex. A total of over 50 students and faculty staff members came to see the film as part of the Latino Heritage Event made possible by SMC professors David Burak, Sharon Bell, and Maria Martinez of the English and Counseling departments respectively.

The 40-minute documentary puts a spotlight on four different inmates, ages ranging from 21 to 24, from four different cellblocks as they fight for the title of prison beauty queen. The competitors consist of a former assassin, a guerrilla who has already served six years in jail, a professional thief and hustler, an accomplice to a gang-related robbery.

In the film, we see the lives of these four women within the fences of confinement, and witness as they immerse themselves in pageantry as a form of escapism from the sadness of isolation and monotony of prison life. We hear each of their own stories through their own words, which quickly remind us that despite whatever reason they may have for their imprisonment, they are indeed people still capable of having emotions.

In other words, “La Corona” commendably reminds us of humanity.

SMC English professor Wilfred Doucet perfectly summed up the significance of this provocative film minutes before the screening. “I think in a country that actually imprisons more people than any other country in the world, the United States, we forget the humanity of the people behind bars. They become invisible,” he said. “And I think a film like this gives that visibility back.”

With the visibility of the incarcerated women displayed throughout the film, we also see a form of normalcy most may deem uncommon in a place like a prison. Such normalcy is demonstrated with the women not actually mandated to wear prison uniforms. These women are allowed to dress however they want to; wear heels, and get their nails or hair done as they please.

But what sets these women apart from others is the camaraderie they are able to uphold especially during the pageant. The support each cellblock has for each of their representative is quite remarkable. Professor Bell - who initially shared the idea of bringing the film to SMC to Professor Burak, after her delightful experience of seeing it for the very first time at the Garifuna Film Festival earlier this year - describes it as simply having “life.”

“You’d think you’re at some sporting event, like a soccer game or something. They really came together,” she said.

Of course, in a country where beauty pageants are so embedded within the culture, so much so that even televised ones occasionally garner higher ratings than the World Cup, it comes as no surprise for this type of pageantry in Colombia to gain an enormous attention and support from the masses.

At the screening, the Colombian born filmmaker Isabel Vega bluntly tells SMC students that “there’s an obsession with beauty in [her mother-country].” She recalls the remarks her parents would make about her appearance when she made visits her home country, “The first thing they would do is say ‘oh, you gained some weight’ or ‘oh, you lost some weight’. That’s the first thing they say to you.”

The importance of physical beauty is weaved into the minds of little girls at a very young age in her culture, that it is with this reason Vega decided to choose a beauty pageant as the subject of her first documentary.

Professor Burak, who is instrumental in organizing screening events of compelling films here at SMC such as “Brooklyn Castle” (2012), “Blackfish” (2013), and “Code Black” (2014), describes Vega as “A very intelligent individual who strives to use her abilities to make a positive impact on the world.”

Also regarded as someone who knows a powerful story when she sees one by Professor Burak, Vega explores the freedom facet this prison beauty pageant entails.

“These women just speak their mind. And I love that. It’s that freedom to say what they want, and they take risks. One of the things I love about it is that they find freedom in the most unusual place you can think of. Because they show you, it doesn’t matter where you are,” she says.

As she puts it simply, “Freedom is in your mind.”

In a way, these women are truly as free as they can possibly be. Ironically enough, to some of them, the prison gives them a security blanket with which they feel safe the most in massive contrast with the harsh and dangerous environment women normally have to face out in the streets.

Through the beauty pageant, they are able to live normally and momentarily forget about the dejected isolation they are in. There is a sense of unification from every person, whether from prisoner to prisoner or warden to prisoner and vice versa. This allows us, the viewers, to see humanity in the form of compassion in a place where we supposedly condemn the most inhumane.

An undoubtedly captivating film, “La Corona” sheds a new light on prisons and prisoners alike in which we see them as they truly are – a reflection of us and our society.

As Professor Doucet so eloquently describes, “Even the most monstrous of us is human. A film like this reminds us of the humanity of people, the way in which prisons are mirrors of the society outside. Those prisons are the countries [and] communities in miniature.” He adds, “What’s true there is true here.”