Let It Burn is a tactful, poignant documentary which slowly unravels the stories of tenants recovering from alcoholism and cocaine addiction in a rundown area of São Paulo.

In 2016, a popular, short-lived initiative called ‘Open Arms’ (De Bracos Abertos) was launched to counteract the detrimental impact of São Paulo’s open-air drug market known as Cracolandia. Through brief vignettes, this documentary illustrates how the harm reduction programme is invaluable in providing safe shelter, access to work, solidarity and companionship in the Parque Dom Pedro Hotel . However, this depiction is not slanted.

Shot mainly in tight framing, the director Maíra Bühler empowers the tenants. There is no narrator to add cohesion: the dialogue is entirely unprompted, and thus propelled by marginalised voices. The static, tight framing underlines that the tenants are relaxed with being scrutinised. This is most notable in reoccurring scenes of an overcrowded lift. A typically claustrophobic experience is transformed into a shared delight: often, the passengers enter ‘just for the ride’ without a clue of where they are heading. It was this aimlessness which saw them gravitate towards the hotel. The lift scenes are a microcosm of the increasing demands the hotel faces. Inevitably, the restriction of space and resources blurs the imminent future. This is reflected in one tenant’s wary, stubborn refusal to accommodate a large family by moving to another room. Initially, this firm stance appears quite unreasonable until it is revealed that he has already been required to change rooms in the past. This constant shuffling around is a stark reminder of the tenuous stability conferred to the tenants.

The ‘Open Arms’ initiative was intended as an alternative to the failed internment and forced abstinence programmes usually run by strict religious groups. A key component of the ‘Open Arms’ ethos was to rebuild the self-esteem of addicts by allowing them to undergo rehabilitation at their own pace. Retaining agency is a key theme of the documentary. In one striking scene, an enraged, intoxicated man, carrying a metal bar, storms into a room. However, the camera remains pinned to the corridor, with the door ajar, while glass shatters and loud thumps can be heard. The implication is that direct intervention is a myopic solution. Reform can only transpire if there is consent. This detachment from the fight underlines that, while the audience can stay sheltered, the tenants, stripped of this privilege, must confront.

Maira Bühler’s portrayal of addicts is bleak but humanising. A surreal clip of a man swimming in a concrete pit, with a lit cigarette dangling from his lips, is juxtaposed with a man strenuously running up a stairwell. A man with raw emotion speaks to his wife on the phone, angrily accusing her of not reciprocating his love, yet kisses a woman once the conversation ceases. Passion is also memorably channelled by a toothless old man, sitting on the edge of a bed, tapping his flip-flops, rocking back and forth while singing a soulful song of hopeful change. Tender intimacy and excruciating loneliness are frequently revisited.

The final segment of the documentary is very sobering. The rooftop of the hotel is encircled by barbed wire where wet clothes hang whilst fireworks are set off in the distance. This overt metaphor of protecting the tenants from the toxicity of the streets should lend itself to cautious optimism. However, this is deflated by a solitary woman sitting on the floor of her room paying no heed to the sounds of festivity. The end credits reveal that soon after filming (January 2017), the newly elected mayor (João Doria) closed the hotel.

Where to Watch


Further Information

Defunct Open Arms Programme

Homelessness in São Paulo


Recommended further viewing by the same director

Shine Your Eyes (available on Netflix)