Syrian ‘Big Brother’ finalist Kaysar Dadour becomes unlikely hero in Brazil

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Aleppo-born Kaysar Dadour sought refuge in Brazil in June 2014. (Supplied)
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The city of Belo Horizonte was hosting its first Festival of Syrian and Lebanese Food and Culture and the Brazilians were embracing it wholeheartedly. (Supplied)
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The city of Belo Horizonte was hosting its first Festival of Syrian and Lebanese Food and Culture and the Brazilians were embracing it wholeheartedly. (Supplied)
Updated 26 April 2018
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Syrian ‘Big Brother’ finalist Kaysar Dadour becomes unlikely hero in Brazil

  • Aleppo-born Kaysar Dadour sought refuge in Brazil in June 2014
  • In early April, he became the first foreigner to reach the final of the country’s hit reality TV show “Big Brother Brasil”

BELO HORIZONTE: On an otherwise quiet Saturday morning in April, a shaded street in southeastern Brazil hummed to the sound of Middle Eastern music. The city of Belo Horizonte was hosting its first Festival of Syrian and Lebanese Food and Culture and the Brazilians were embracing it wholeheartedly — much like they have embraced a 28 year-old Syrian refugee for the past three months.

Aleppo-born Kaysar Dadour sought refuge in Brazil in June 2014. In early April, he became the first foreigner to reach the final of the country’s hit reality TV show “Big Brother Brasil.” He eventually finished in second place, racked up more than 2.5 million followers on Instagram, and walked away with US$44,000. He said he plans to use the prize money to extract his parents from the ongoing war in his native country.

A loud, smiley extrovert who changed his hairstyle on a near-weekly basis and charmed viewers with his occasional mispronunciation of Portuguese words, Kaysar worked as a waiter before entering the Big Brother house. He was accused of being disingenuous by some of the other 19 housemates, who insisted nobody could be so happy and energetic all of the time — especially someone who claimed he had lost a girlfriend and an uncle to war and was forced to sleep on the streets in Ukraine after fleeing Aleppo in 2011.

Yet to those fans enjoying shwarmaskibe and esfihas at the food festival, Kaysar proved a positive force, providing a different perspective of a situation they knew only from watching and reading the news.

“I voted for him to win,” said Brigitte Bacha, a dance instructor wearing a white t-shirt with “Peace in Syria” emblazoned across the front. “It is so important that he was on the show, because he showed the reality of the situation there. It was obvious he has a good character. He works hard and has integrated himself into our country. He showed that refugees are just like you and me, but they find themselves in a bad place just now.”

Lili Resende, a Brazilian attending with a Romanian friend, said she had not watched much of the show, but had been supporting Kaysar so that he could afford to save his family from war. “The perception of refugees here is already very good, but I was supporting him and wanting him to win because he and his family have suffered a lot,” said Resende, who shares an apartment building with various Syrians and helps them sell native food products at the local market. 

Brazil has long welcomed refugees from the Middle East. An influx of Lebanese in the late 19th Century resulted in Brazil being home to more Lebanese than any country outside Lebanon. More than 3,000 Syrians have reportedly arrived in recent years. Organizers of Saturday’s festival said they had expected around 3,000 visitors throughout the day, but the final headcount came in at 7,040. Entry was free, but each guest had to donate one kilogram of non-perishable food to a local charity. 

“Arab families gather together to eat, so we thought why not bring together the Brazilian people to eat Arab food together,” said the Consul of Syria for Minas Gerais state, Emir Cadar. As the smell of koftas and shish barak wafted through the air, flyers for Arabic lessons were distributed, vendors sold handmade chessboards, dresses and shisha pipes, and belly dancers swayed and jolted to live Middle Eastern music. 

“We dream of an end to war,” said Cadar — a statement in contrast to the official line that his government broadcast earlier in the day in which it was claimed “the Syrian people are happy” and that the country “is a victim of lies and fake news.”


No joking: Ben Stiller directs gritty prison drama

You have the freedom to tell these kind of stories on TV and work in a way that is not just about bringing huge audiences to the theaters, said Ben Stiller. (Reuters)
Updated 16 October 2018
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No joking: Ben Stiller directs gritty prison drama

  • Stiller puts on his auteur hat to tell the gritty and fascinating tale of a woman who helped two murderers escape from an upstate New York jail near the Canadian border
  • Stiller, whose films have grossed nearly $3 billion (2.5 billion euros), said it would have been impossible to “do all the nuances of (prison) reality in two hours” on the big screen

CANNES, France: Hollywood star Ben Stiller put away his clown face Monday to premiere his directorial debut in Cannes, a stranger-than-fiction prison-break drama that is based on a true story.
The American actor best known for the “Zoolander” and “Night at the Museum” films directed all eight episodes of “Escape at Dannemora,” the first of which was screened at MIPCOM, the world’s top television and entertainment showcase in the French Riviera resort.
With a stellar cast that includes Benicio del Toro, Patricia Arquette and Paul Dano, Stiller puts on his auteur hat to tell the gritty and fascinating tale of a woman who helped two murderers escape from an upstate New York jail near the Canadian border.
Their 2015 break-out from the Clinton Correctional Facility at Dannemora riveted America.
The interest grew still more intense when it became clear that middle-aged female supervisor in the jail, Tilly Mitchell, was having sex with both men and was smuggling hacksaw blades and burger meat into them.
Stiller, whose films have grossed nearly $3 billion (2.5 billion euros), said it would have been impossible to “do all the nuances of (prison) reality in two hours” on the big screen.
“You wouldn’t have been able to tell the stories of all the characters... or have the chance to lay out their world and build the tension,” he said after the screening.
“Television is now the place where you can make the kind of movies we are not making anymore,” he added.
Imagine, he argued, trying to get over the reality of Mitchell working with a lone guard in a room “full of 40 murderers and rapists, each with a pair of shears, working for 35 cents an hour” for an outside company that was making a fat profit on all their backs.
Stiller spent nearly two years working on “Escape at Dannemora,” visiting the surviving escaper David Sweat for five hours and shooting in the prison yards where he plotted the break with the Machiavellian Richard Matt, a talented painter who wrapped other inmates and prison guards round his finger.
He said the script was based on the anti-corruption report written by New York inspector general Catherine Leahy Scott, which Stiller said “read like a novel.”
“It is hard not to identify with the protagonist in a prison escape, but we wanted to show who they were as people and why they were in jail,” Stiller added.
“You have the freedom to tell these kind of stories on TV and work in a way that is not just about bringing huge audiences to the theaters,” said the 52-year-old actor.
“It is the kind of story that I have wanted to tell but I’ve never done until now.”
The first episode of “Escape at Dannemora” will go out on Showtime in the US on November 18.