Book Review: The Cambridge Squatter – architecture, cinema and education

Accompaniment to Eliane Caffé’s original film, which blended documentary and fictive elements to tell the story of life at the Cambridge Hotel in São Paulo, Brazil.


by Carla Caffé
Sold as E-Book [Kobo][Amazon]
PP: 242
Publisher: Edições Sesc SP
2017
Based on the film Era o Hotel Cambridge (Hotel Cambridge/The Cambridge Squatter) directed by Carla Caffé
Review by E.T.C. Dee


The hotel was squatted by housing activists associated with Frente de Luta por Moradia (FLM, or Housing Struggle Front) and Movimento dos Sem-Toto do Centro (MSTC, or  Downtown Homeless Movement) and is part of a network of big urban squats housing thousands of people in the city.

After the film aired, the director produced a book in Portuguese about how it was made which has now been translated into English. It’s a great read! Like the film that spawned it, the book is rather unique, telling the story of how the filmmakers interacted with the inhabitants of the squat in the style of a graphic novel, with additional features such as transcribed interviews.

Clearly, both the book and film were produced in a way which prioritised making the process both useful and meaningful to the people who lived in the project. What does this mean in practice? Some residents became involved to the point of actually acting in the film; the room that was used as the assembly hall in the film was painted and furnished with armchairs, so that it could then be used for real assemblies in future; the library was revamped; a sewing workshop / thrift store was set up in a new location with more light. But further than this, lasting links were made with residents through initiatives like ongoing video workshops for kids and a vegetable garden.

As well as having displaced peoples from the Brazilian countryside living at the squat, there were refugees from places such as Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Palestine and Syria. The horizontality of the film-making process appears to have helped Brazilian MSTC leaders such as Carmen Silva (who appears in the film) to become more responsive to refugees as individuals with specific needs. After the film finished shooting, some of the refugees and migrants carried on meeting up, joined the MSTC and formed the GRIST within it (Grupo de Refugiados e Immigrantes Sem-Teto = Homeless Refugees and Immigrants Group).

Carmen seems like a real character, reminiscent to me of some of the matriarchal figures at the head of Rome’s housing justice movement. She is described in the book as follows:

Authoritarian and generous at the same time, she treats everyone equally and demands responsibility and participation.” The interview with her is fascinating, not least because she relates how this is not the first time she has participated in a film, naming others such as Dia da festa, Brigadeiro 700, Cidade Concreto and Estamos Juntos. She also talks about how MSTC is not simply housing people, it also helps them with “awareness [and] resocialization.

When she goes on to say “we take citizens who are socially ‘crushed,’ without a single document, and make them understand that their first duty is to the state” this does worry me slightly, since I would always advocate self-organisation to keep the power with the people doing the work rather than ceding power to the state, yet there is no doubt that the self-housing movement of São Paulo is really helping people get their feet back on the ground. So they are doing some things right.

It is perhaps comparable in some ways to DAL (Droit au logement = Right to housing) movement in Paris. This group has been criticised locally by anarchist squatters for collaborating with politicians and being friendly with mainstream media, whilst at the same time they do manage to house thousands of people. It is an interesting philosophical question for anarchists then, how much to live in the world of ideas and how much to actually get involved with direct housing action. It would of course be interesting to hear more then about explicitly anarchist squatting in Brazil, something I know little about apart from occasional news reports (the last concerning Operation Erebo in Porto Alegre).

There’s loads of good stuff in the book, such as “How to make a tire armchair” and the description of how when FLM occupy a building everyone gets a “party kit” with a T-shirt, insect repellent, food, a pillow and a gas mask! I really enjoyed the section on improvised solutions to residential problems, like a drawer being used as a step in a ladder and a vase made out of a lightbulb.

So all in all this is a absorbing and ‘one of a kind’ book, a really amazing accompaniment to a great film. We are lucky to have an English translation and I hope it finds its way to film-makers, squatters, anti-colonial activists, students, refugees and everyone else interested in non-hierarchical organisation. We can all learn a lot from this book.