Brazilian director Fellipe Barbosa took inspiration from his own family’s financial problems for his debut feature Casa Grande.

This contemporary, coming-of-age tale is about a teenager in his final year at one of Rio’s top private schools dealing with his family’s bankruptcy.

“Around 2002 to 2003, my parents lost a lot of money. I wasn’t around at the time because I was studying in the States,” recounts Barbosa, who is an alumnus of Columbia University’s film programme. “The film is a fantasy of what it would have been like if I had been a teenager living with my parents at the time of the crisis.”

Alongside dealing with his parents’ money worries, the central protagonist is also struggling to get to university as a new Brazilian law reserving 50% of higher education places for students coming from state schools or who are of African or indigenous descent comes into force.

“It’s a very personal, character driven story which also deals with a lot of issues touching Brazil today from Brazil’s legalisation of affirmative action last year to the fact that the country’s wealthy classes feel uneasy about their wealth. They don’t talk about it,” says Barbosa.

Iafa Britz of Rio-based Migdal Filmes — best known for mainstream, concept comedies and popular TV fare — produced the film. This marks a first foray into a low budget, art-house production for Britz.

The cast of Casa Grande combines established actors such as soap star Marcello Novaes and Suzana Pires alongside a group of young amateur actors drawn from Barbosa’s old school in Rio, the Colegio de Sao Bento.

The filmmaker spent four years on or off working with pupils at the school as part of the development process for Casa Grande, eventually drawing the cast from its classes.

“I had a four boys who I knew I wanted to play key roles in the film but it took me a long time to decide who would be Jean… each boy would have resulted in a different film,” said Barbosa.

The director is now developing Gabriel and the Mountain about an old friend who died tragically in Malawi when he got lost while he was trekking in the mountains.

In between times, he is also writing the transitions for the upcoming portmanteau feature Rio I Love You featuring segments by Fernando Meirelles, Paolo Sorrentino, Nadine Labaki and Stephan Elliott.