Occupying Brazil

Thousands turn to the illegal occupation of Sao Paulo’s abandoned high rises as an alternative to life on the streets.

In the canyons of Brazil’s largest city there are tens of thousands being left in the wake of the country’s economic riptide.

Sao Paulo has outstripped its capacity for affordable housing and yet there are hundreds of abandoned buildings that stand empty.

Facing the dire prospect of being forced into the streets by rising rents and living in the ever-expanding and hazardous favelas, there is an occupation movement taking responsibility for its own future. They seize abandoned buildings for the low-wage workers who have few options except to forcibly occupy them. They then have to live with the uncertainty that they could be removed either by the state or the building’s owner.

It is an uneasy solution to a vexing problem borne of the nation’s exploding growth. The pride with which Brazil is welcoming the 2014 World Cup and soon the Olympics is a source of pain for those who feel these events are further evidence of their being left behind.

Isabella, her family, her friends and all those who are occupying these buildings feel these seizures are their only hope for a stable future in Brazil’s world of promises.


By Daniel A Rubio

In Occupying Brazil everything seems to be normal. For the last 15 years the winds of globalisation have swept across Brazil. By 2016 it will be the fifth largest economy in the world and with all of that growth more than 40 million people have been integrated into a thriving consumer market.

But this film is about a different part of Brazil. It is about those people who continue to live in the shadow of Brazil’s economic juggernaut. Fifteen years ago I began filming stories about social movements in Brazil. In every corner of this continental country, social movements seem to be the answer to the historical gap between rich and poor, where marginalised come together to try to solve their basic needs and make a difference for the future of their lives.

Occupying Brazil was made to reveal these people and their stories, to learn who these people are and to discover what their lives are like from day to day. These are families who live in the heart of the biggest city in the western hemisphere and yet remain excluded from the public conversation with no voice in the media and isolated from a public that often does not even know they exist. They are economic refugees, displaced by their nation’s new fortunes.

When there is an occupation of an abandoned building, the media covers it, but the next day, they are forgotten once more.

I have met with these occupiers: working families who can no longer afford to pay the rocketing rental rates now commanded by most of the landlords in Brazil’s urban centres; they occupy the abandoned buildings in the city so that the meagre money they do earn can be used for food and other basic needs.

Resolute in their purpose, one member of the occupation movement put it this way: “It is a way to force distribution of income.” They occupy to push the authorities to develop affordable housing programmes in Brazil.

This film is also the story of Isabella. She is one of those people involved in this movement and sees her life blunted without a place to live for herself and for her children.

In Isabella’s life this all seems oddly normal – to live in a building in ruins, to live with underemployment, to live with an unsustainable situation for her family. Isabella has to make decisions that will affect her life and the lives of her children. One of them is about the viability and opportunity of occupation.

Through Isabella, we tell the story of thousands of people who remain forgotten and marginalised in Brazil, in the heart of the largest and richest city in Latin America, and how through all of this, this story seems to be normal for those living it.