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 Denise Zmekhol’s late-father’s masterpiece. Imagined in the 1960s, a time of hope and prosperity in Brazil, the building was constructed in the first months of a new dictatorship and for decades 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.
The film follows Zmekhol’s journey to discover her father’s threatened legacy as an artist, as she confronts the harsh reality of inequality destroying the city he loved. Her personal search forces her 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 Denise’s narration, in the form of a letter to her father, guides us: “Dear Papi, I write to you across time, my heart full of love and wonder. I have come to the place of your greatest achievement. People now call it Pele de Vidro–Skin of Glass. Never in your lifetime would you have imagined what would become of your great work.”
Denise is accompanied on her journey by people with a passionate connection to her father’s work and the fate of the building. She films 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, 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, Denise must come to terms with the fact that the building her father designed to celebrate the future has come to this tragic end in a dystopian city that would have been unimaginable to him.