Squatting as Scenery

in 18th Festival do Rio

by Ivonete Pinto

At a first glance, all movies can be considered as a combination of form and content. But there are other films where these two bodies are remarkable, because their construction happens to be uniform, so the viewer can intellectually and emotionally be involved by image and narrative. This is the case of Era o Hotel Cambridge (2016), by Eliane Caffé.

In this film, these two levels ? that can be identified as the aesthetic and the thematic ? have several layers, adding sophistication to the already known formula that mixes documentary and fiction. This proposal is closely linked to the project: Era o Hotel Cambridge (meaning “It was the Cambridge Hotel”) shows the squatting of an abandoned building in downtown São Paulo (an old luxury hotel closed in 2011), where homeless workers, Palestinian and African refugees, live. The building is not a simple scenario – it is in fact occupied, there is a threat of invasion by the police to execute a repossession order (eviction) and many of the occupants actually live there. But some are well known actors in Brazil.

The performance of professional actors and non-actors (or “social actors”) is an important element in contemporary cinema – some Iranian directors are well known for working with this combination. Even the director Eliane Caffé has tried it in her previous films, especially Narradores de Javé (2003). In Era o Hotel Cambridge this mix is provided, initially, by the script construction (including pre-set and improvised dialogues) and made evident by the actors’ performances. José Dumont and Suely Franco are popular actors, with significant careers in film, theater and television. I call attention to the actors’ performances because it is precisely this aspect that contributes to the weight of invention in the film. In “traditional” films that mix fiction and non-fiction, there are professional and non-professional actors working together. This also happens in Caffé’s film, but the director chose well-known actors, thus calling attention to the fact that they are a “foreign body”.

The actors directing expertise allows José Dumont and Suely Franco to act on equal terms with non-actors like Carmen Silva, Isam Ahmad Issa and Luambo Pitschou. Carmen, who plays the leader of the occupation, takes from on her own experience as a leader in the Front for Housing Fight organization; Isam is a Palestinian refugee with a PhD in genetic engineering, and Luambo Pitshou is a refugee from Congo with a degree in Law. It was left to the professionals to achieve the naturalness of non- professionals. The task was achieved mainly by Dumont, who already starred in two films by the director, the mentioned Narradores de Javé and Kenoma (1998). In Cambridge Hotel he plays a homeless filmmaker, somehow naive, trying to make a documentary with the building residents. There is a certain histrionics in his acting, but perhaps it is justified because the character “poses” as a film director, and dresses himself in a supposed way a film director would. Therefore the tone above can be defended and matches with the characters that surround him. We can say that there is a chemistry between all of them.

Social issues

In the aesthetic field, there is the cinematography (by Bruno Risas) that needs to deal with nuances of natural light and shadow, including night scenes with no artificial light. Taking cues from documentary film language, the camera moves in a responsive way to record real facts (invasion, despair, assemblies, conflicts). At other times, we can see a decoupage and an editing applied to the fictional mise-en- scène, that value strategic dialogues of the characters.

Interestingly, the two awards that the film won in the Rio International Festival somehow illustrate these two possibilities: Best Editing (Marcio Hashimoto) and Best Fiction Film by the popular jury. In other words, the aesthetics and language were recognized by the official jury, and the thematic subject was recognized by the popular jury, sensitive to a social theme of absolute urgency.

Certainly, there is a necessity of a critical distance to evaluate the events. There is a complexity of interests in the matters involved in a squatting, from political parties and social movements of different ideological trends, to serious NGOs and NGOs not as serious; honest press and not that honest press; surrounding residents and ultimately the population itself directly involved: the occupants. Are there those among them who could live anywhere else? Are there those among them who would be sleeping under viaducts if there was no occupation? Probably.

In Eliana Caffé’s film, which seeks in fiction a way to widen the debate, the homeless and refugees are people, not statistics. The United Nations says there are 33 million homeless people in Brazil and the number of refugees has surpassed 10 thousand. The more the problem grows, the greater is the tendency of these people to turn into numbers. So perhaps this debate needs to leave the journalistic space and government offices and take place in movie theaters (or the homes of those who only watch movies on their computers). Through the fiction inserted in the form of the film, it is possible to relate to its aesthetics and content inseparably.

This is not a perfect film, there are too many elements to contextualize the occupation, such as municipal elections and hate attacks on immigrants over the internet, which needed to be better developed. But the essence is a timely film, global and urgent. Moreover, Caffé achieved harmony between the various aesthetic and thematic layers and reached a commendable final result. She carries out a committed cinema for disadvantaged population, in the best tradition of Ken Loach, adding pinches of humor and self mockery in which Brazilians are experts.

Edited by Yael Shuv


in 18th Festival do Rio