What Starting a Prison Theatre Group Taught Me About Empathy and Understanding

Writer-director Fernando Grostein Andrade on the lessons he learned behind bars, and how they apply to his new film Abe and our present moment.

Because of COVID-19, humanity is facing a reset moment. We have a rare opportunity to look at the bigger picture and reflect. With that intent, I created and directed the film Abe. The movie sees the conflict in the Middle East through the eyes (and stomach) of Abe, a 12-year-old kid from Brooklyn. Abe fights to build his identity amid the battlefield of his half-Palestinian, half-Israeli family. His solution is to try to cook dinner for them all and, of course, it all goes wrong. It goes wrong, but it induces a catharsis … and I won’t say any more, because I don’t want to spoil the film!

Noah Schnapp in Fernando Grostein Andrade’s Abe. (Photo by Alex Korolkovas.)

The inspiration for Abe came after my nephew was born. Like me, he is also the child of a mixed Jewish marriage. I wondered, what kind of movie would be important for him to watch with his parents? Initially, I was absolutely repulsed by the theme of religion; it always seemed to me like the pretext for wars. When I read Joseph Campbell’s book Thou Art That, my eyes were opened. It states that when religion is taken literally, it is extremely dangerous. Once it is seen as a metaphor, it opens up an enormous window to cultures from humanity’s many thousand years of history. For example, if you see the Promised Land as a piece of land, you are capable of killing and dying for it. If you see it as a metaphor, you think of what you can do to metaphysically elevate yourself and become a better person.

I don’t believe that eating hummus together is capable of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I do believe, however, that two people have more chance of solving their differences around a table – eating good food, lovingly made – than in a debate on Facebook. It is important, incidentally, to highlight the fact that Facebook’s algorithm is programmed to generate profit for the stockholders, and this means that the more people who are connected, the better. The problem is that conflict is always more compelling than harmony, fights bring audiences and thus humanity’s “fecal bolus” goes viral. The question then becomes how to waken the best humanity has to offer. Likewise, geopolitical and economic interests in the Middle East always appear disguised as do-goodery and as the words of God.

Fernando Grostein Andrade with Noah Schnapp on the set of Abe.

Abe ends up learning how to cook (and to mature) thanks to a Brazilian chef, Chico Catuaba, played by Seu Jorge, a musician and actor in movies such as City of God. When Abe opens up to Chico, it is clear that his problems overlap with Chico’s own concerns. He doesn’t speak about it and doesn’t even need to: As a black man, he has suffered immeasurably from racism. (As do many other groups, such as native peoples in many parts of the world; we must fight to end all holocausts, of all groups.) There are more casualties from COVID-19 among black people than any other demographic in the U.S. For centuries, black people have been enslaved, exterminated and marginalized. Today, the population of American prisons – and the predominance of black inmates – reveals infinite echoes of the problem. And when I say “American,” I mean all of America, including Central and Latin America; after all, we are Americans too.

A few years ago, when I still lived in Brazil, I wanted to create a theatre group inside a maximum security prison. It was an opportunity both to do something positive for others, but also to broaden my world, since I am a white man from a middle-class family, with all the privileges that come with that. I discovered that the Adriano Marrey Penitentiary in Guarulhos, Brazil, had tried such a program two years before, but that it had ended. With my proposal and its possibility of casting inmates in a film, the penitentiary agents, the prison director and the judge connected with the prison agreed to restart the program. The soon-to-be-released inmates received training in acting and practiced empathy as never before. We used a method conceived by Brazilian theatre theorist Augusto Boal, the Theatre of the Oppressed, and the prisoners played cops and even ballerinas, forcing their minds to occupy very different points of view from their own.

The results of the Do Lado de Cá theatre program were spectacular: The inmates acted in plays, movies and shows. One of them told me he now finally had done something that made his family proud. These men felt empowered and even with all the difficulties inherent in following a career as an actor, they had something beautiful to put in their portfolio as they tried to find other opportunities. The first time we were looking for prisoners to join the group, we struggled to find many who were interested. The second time, there so many prisoners who signed up, we had to have a waitlist. I remember like it was yesterday, the time a dangerous bandit – a punisher who killed rapists or those who had violated his moral code, and had killed more than 100 people – decided to attend a trial class. He completed one exercise where everybody formed a circle and used other people’s hands to clap. And then he smiled. Nobody in the prison had ever seen him smile before. A line formed to see him practicing drama.

The prisoners felt a new sense of hope and saw a new way out of a life of crime. People think that releasing inmates from prison is enough to help them start a new life, but this is just the first step. As important as freedom and economic opportunity is, reawakening the souls of the inmates is equally so. We showed the group’s work to another NGO, Humanitas360, and they were inspired to start a choir program in the prison. One day, Andrea Bocelli – one of the greatest living tenors – visited the inmates and sang with them. The theatre group is still active today, although currently suspended because of COVID-19.

My experience with the prison theatre group was crucial to making Abe because it trained me to fully commit to understand people’s lives and perspectives, especially those who face the biggest struggles. So, I traveled with the filmmaker Claudia Calabi to Israel and Palestine to do research; I couldn’t direct Abe and Claudia couldn’t be the production designer on the film without an immersion in the Middle East. On the trip, we grew to understand how food was a rich and deep resource to understand the cultures, contexts and conflicts of Palestine and Israel. Our research developed into a documentary (which currently has the working title Flavors) that investigates the relationship between people and food, from production through consumption. Ingredients, terroir, cooking techniques, recipes and eating habits reveal a diverse range of identities and also power dynamics, religious aspects, ethnic backgrounds, political and economic contexts, territorial relations and human connections that open our perception to a wider understanding of this unique place.

Ironically, one of the scenes I’m proudest of is set beneath the streets of Jerusalem. A specialist explains to the camera, “Here is where Jews, Palestinians and Christians all meet as equals: in the sewer.” According to him, Palestinians and Israelis united to make a common plan to treat all their sewage. It went wrong: Palestinian politicians didn’t want to treat the water because of Israeli settlers who live illegally in the valley. And Israeli politicians decided not to cooperate because they believed Palestinians weren’t capable of treating Israel’s sewage. So, are those of us who talk about peace really wrong? Wouldn’t it be better to meet a few stages earlier, around a table, instead of by the waste?

Today, politicians routinely dismiss compassionate initiatives for peace as naive or utopian and justify the use of military force as the only solution to reach peace. The truth is that for true peace to be achieved, it must be built on a foundation of affection, culture, gastronomy, empathy, music and kindness. Once those things are in place, the threat of military force can solidify that peace, but it must never be the primary action. While making Abe, we interviewed a water specialist who looked at the Middle East conflict from the perspective of water itself, and one thing she said really stuck with me. According to her, the land does not belong to us, but rather we belong to the land. Hopefully during this time of global pandemic, that idea will be increasingly resonant for both world leaders and their voters.

Fernando Grostein Andrade is a Los Angeles-based Brazilian filmmaker and media entrepreneur, represented by Untitled Entertainment. His new film Abe, starring Noah Schnapp, Seu Jorge and Mark Margolis, premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and is now available on VOD. He created and directed Quebrando o Tabu, a documentary that discusses alternative solutions to the war on drugs featuring six heads of state, including Jimmy Carter and Fernando Henrique Cardoso. It was distributed in 22 countries, became a two-season 10-episode TV series, show-run by Fernando, and was spun off into an online media channel with 10 million followers, becoming the largest human rights internet outlet in Brazil with the biggest Facebook engagement rate in all Brazilian media. Fernando was also one of the creators of Carcereiros, a 2017 MIPTV award-winning drama TV series, for which he directed five episodes. He reactivated a theater group formed by inmates inside a maximum-security penitentiary called Do Lado de Ca, many of whom were later cast in many productions. Fernando co-founded Mapa Educação, a youth movement that advocates for quality in public education in Brazil and directed the documentary Wandering Heart, featuring Caetano Veloso and special appearances by Almodóvar, Antonioni and Giselle Bündchen. With an ever-growing online presence, Fernando’s coming-out video on YouTube had 250k views and sparkled an online debate about acceptance in Brazil. Fernando is a columnist for two of the largest Brazilian media outlets, Folha de São Paulo and Veja. Follow him on Instagram here. (Picture by Fernando Siqueira.)