Nilza and the directors.

Alfredo Avila found himself in Brazil in 2004, far from his high school alma mater of Samohi. While seeking to expand his cultural education as a UC Berkeley exchange student in Brazil, he and his co-director Edward Vela were confronted with an unavoidable experience– poverty.

Particularly, how it shapes the most vulnerable — women and children —  and how these experiences echo throughout their lives. They documented their experiences and will show their over-a-decade-in-the-making documentary “God’s Tenants” Thursday, December 20 at the Los Angeles Brazilian Film Festival held at the Laemmle.

A trailer for the documentary reveals Rio De Janeiro, though not an idealized tourist hot spot. Old, tattered clothes cling to rail-thin bodies and children hustle barefoot in the streets in the trailer. The film mainly focuses on a struggling mother, Nilza, and her efforts in living life off a landfill as well as her journey to find her daughter who disappeared.

“As extreme as it was, we realized that her story wasn’t an isolated event,” Vela said. “Nilza’s voice became one for a larger call for social justice for all people living in her situation.”

Avila added that the film’s name was born out of witnessing Nilza and so many other’s living conditions– what causes lead to people — all of us being God’s Tenants on this earth — to be forced into these situations?

Chance encounters led to the creation of the documentary.

Avila and Vela were both studying abroad, Avila a comms major and Vela a majoring in global economies. The two met and struck up a friendship, eventually wanting to tell a story of what they were experiencing in Brazil. The two struck up friendships with the locals (“When they find out you’re Mexican American, they’re less standoffish,” Avila joked), where they eventually met Nilza.

“She was living in a shack and at the time,” Avila said. “We went back five years later to see if she found her daughter and we capture what happened … [Nilza] is the face of what people would see as poverty but we wanted to show what’s behind that–an inspirational woman rising up against adversity. She had domestic violence, in poor conditions, and she was making things work for her family.”

Avila says Vela was the perfect partner for the documentary, with Avila focusing on the humanity of the impoverished while Vela tackled the political and economic aspects that led to the Brazil slums.  

The duo shot over 70 hours of footage between 2004 and 2011. Between the duo’s current jobs of teaching and investment, the film took over a decade to finish.

Debuting the finished film in Santa Monica at the L.A. Brazilian Film Festival is a nice welcome home for Avila.

“It’s our first festival, it’s crazy that it’s happening in Santa Monica,” Avila said with a laugh. “From here and L.A., both studied in Brazil. What are the odds? It’s a crazy coincidence that all of our identities and upbringing is coming together and through this film. Feels meant to be.”

God’s Tenants will have its Festival World Premiere at the Los Angeles Brazilian Film Festival 2018 December 20th at 3pm at Laemmle Monica Center in Santa Monica, CA . For more info visit and


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