São Paulo – August 1st on pay TV channel HBO Max will see the premiere of documentary series “Babel SP which portrays the lives of Arab refugees and homeless Brazilians living together at Occupation Leila Khaled – an occupied building in São Paulo’s Liberdade neighborhood. Two hundred and fifty residents have come together to share the facilities in the struggle for housing amid real estate speculation in the city.
The series is directed by André Amparo, whose efforts include 20 anos de Grupo Galpão, and producers including Samantha Capdeville, who worked on Selton Mello’s feature offering The Clown. Instead of an actual person, the lead character in Babel SP is the unlikely relationship that evolved between Brazilians and Arabs in downtown São Paulo. “Our focus is on their interactions. The possibilities of solidarity-based coexistence between these people who struggle. With so many cultural differences, an 80-year-old lady is sharing that space with a transvestite who’s a prostitute. It’s a cultural and religious chasm. And by the way the refugees were way better informed than the Brazilians. Almost every one of them were college-educated,” said Capdeville.
The production was originally going to portray only Syrian refugees, but the subject matter grew broader once André Amparo found out about the Occupation by homeless Brazilian citizens affiliated with Movimento Terra Livre (the Free Land Movement), who welcomed the refugees. “We submitted our project and several channels became interested. It was originally a feature documentary,” explained Amparo, who ultimately opted for a series of seven 1-hour episodes.
The show went into production in March 2017, after the team completed a long process of approaching the occupants. “I began going there a lot, I spent a year coming and going,” explained André, a native of Minas Gerais, Brazil. “It’s a very political process. You frequent the place in order to get close with them, to win their trust – especially so with the Arabs,” said Capdeville.
To get into their first meetings, the Babel SP team got help from activist Hasan Zarif, a Brazilian-born Palestinian descendant who owns restaurant Al Janiah. He was the filmmaking team’s ticket in: before going to the actual building, they met residents who work at the restaurant. Zarif is a son to Palestinian refugees and speaks Arabic. “He met an elderly Arab man on the street and found out he’d been living in a tenement house in [São Paulo neighborhood] Brás with several other fellow countrymen. They were being explored, paying a fortune to live in tiny spaces. They’d get lured in upon arrival at the airport,” said Capdeville.
So Zarif began including the refugees in activities of Movimento Terra Livre. “The question of real estate speculation was what worried us the most, so I spoke to them so they’d include Arab families in this occupation,” said Zarif. “They’d resist living there, due to political concerns. They didn’t understand how it worked and how someone could live in a place that’s not their own, or nobody’s. They’d go ‘Who are these people who live in such a place? For an Arab, there’s no such thing as homeless family. They’d never allow a family member to live in the streets,” explained Capdeville.
The Arab families settled in floors 7 to 10, and during the first residents meeting, the name was chosen: Occupation Leila Khaled, in honor of a 1970s militant for the Palestinian cause. Throughout 2016, the team kept track of life at the Occupation, but the actual filming wouldn’t begin until March 2017. With two cameras, the professionals would assume their position in 10 to 30 sqm rooms. “Thinking back to when we were there with those cameras, doing that was really wild. This only happened because of this protracted yearlong process before going in [with the cameras],” the producer explained.
24/7 in Ramadan
The show depicts the interaction between the building residents during the Muslim sacred month Ramadan, when the worshippers fast from sunrise till dawn. “Filming during Ramadan was super nice because we had a close relation to Mesquita Brasil [in São Paulo], which supported us. They appreciated the proposal, that we were doing in the sincerest way. I let it clear from the start that our idea was to tell their story from the fresh start. How was their arrival in Brazil, having to work with something that wasn’t what they did [in their homeland]. The daily life of this new reality. It’s not just a show about refugees. It’s about this encounters,” André Amparo said.
The challenge to film in the period implied in a team effort during the day to follow the Brazilians and, at night, when the Muslim Arabs broke the fast. “For us, it’s something rational. They (the occupation residents) act more out of their emotions. They are doing what they do every day. The Arabs only worked at night, while Brazilians worked during the day. It was a great opportunity. The Arabs threw feasts and gathered in one house,” Capdeville pointed out.
Refugees in their own land
The directors say that, during the filming, the number of refugees reached 57, most of them from Syria. Moreover, most of them were Palestinians born in Syria. “The Brazilians are refugees from their own land. The Arabs in the occupation were refugees twice. Palestinians who went to Syria and then were expelled again. There, we found out that some of them had lived in the same refugee camp in Syria. They made a life there and had years of friendship. People that had accomplished a stable life and then met again in the occupation [in Brazil],” Samantha Capdeville said. Over the episodes, one can follow the life and relations between the residents, who often work together in restaurants or activities such as moves.
Women are the majority in the place, which was named after an Arab woman. “We learned that, when the Arab men can’t afford leaving with his whole family, they first send the women,” Capdeville said. Therefore, the women have a key role in the occupation. “There is a female leadership. Within [Brazilian women’s] own reality, many have incarcerated husbands. And I think we women are more eager to go someplace. It’s rarer seeing a woman living on the streets. And their confidence is also something unique, being present at the occupations, fighting more for that place,” she reported.
If the name Babel reminds of the Biblical story of how different languages created barriers between the peoples, its characters sometimes undo demystifies this idea. “We talked, for example, with a man from Bahia and an Arab that became friends. It was very funny because the Arab only understood what the Bahian said, and no one else. They joked they had created their own language,” Capdeville recalled.
Premiere of ‘Babel SP’
August 1st, 11 pm
Canal MAX, HBO
Translated by Gabriel Pomerancblum & Guilherme Miranda