The Story


SKIN OF GLASS is the story of São Paulo’s largest vertical favela, a 25-story office tower that is a treasure of mid-20th century architecture and my late-father’s masterpiece. Roger Zmekhol was just 30 years old when he imagined the “Pele de Vidro” building in the 1960s, a time of hope and prosperity in Brazil. A military dictatorship took over the country before the building was completed, and for decades it served as the federal police headquarters. Then it was abandoned, becoming an empty and decaying home for impoverished immigrants and people living at the margins of society. I discovered the building in this state in 2017, four decades after my father’s death. The shock of this discovery was a revelation; I had so much to learn about my father’s life as a creative person and had so many questions about what had become of our country.

The film follows my journey to discover my father’s threatened legacy as an artist, as I confront the harsh reality of inequality destroying the city he loved. My personal search forces me to face the brutal reality of a global crisis: one in six people in the world are squatters. The film evolves as a poetic essay on displacement, and my narration, in the form of a letter to my father, guides us.

I am accompanied on my journey by people with a passionate connection to my father’s work and the fate of the building, which is a mirror held up to our country, reflecting periods of darkness and rebirth. I film several characters over the course of a year, including city officials who see the building as a threat to public safety, occupation leaders fighting to protect the rights of squatters, the squatters themselves and scholars of architecture arguing for preservation. Through their stories, we come to understand the symbolic importance of the building as a reflection of Brazil’s political and economic turmoil over the last half century.

When, in the spring of 2018, the building catches fire and collapses in an explosion of ash and debris, I must come to terms with the fact that the building my father designed to celebrate the future has come to this tragic end in a dystopian city that would have been unimaginable to him. Then in late October, when Brazil’s far-right populist presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, wins the election, I return to Brazil. One of our characters, who is a leader of the housing movement, warns that the police are already threatening to go after the movement leaders and activists. I witness how the struggle over the future of the country is reflected in the struggle over the contested space where my father’s building once stood. This new chapter in Brazil’s history, which makes the grainy black and white footage of the dictatorship suddenly prescient and alive, is the culmination of a wrenching journey that began with my modest hope to explore my own personal history and my home country and has transformed into an alarming cautionary tale for my adopted home in the U.S. and the world.

The glass walls have fallen. Your creation of hope and optimism gone—and what of the lives within?
— Denise Zmekhol