It is something of a stretch to even consider the bizarre reality of Hotel Dallas a documentary. It clearly isn’t just that. It is so much more. True, there are kernels of historical truth sprinkled about, from which great stories bloom. And, at least a couple “characters” actually existed. The normal techniques of the documentarian are there, too: speaking directly to camera, voice-over narration, and interviews with real people. But, in addition to this, writer/directors Livia Unger and Sherng-Lee Huang throw in some time travel, reality-bending, and even a few songs for laughs. The final piece is some amalgam of magical realism and historical retrospective.
Though it is a bit buried, the subject of Hotel Dallas is Communist Romania. The looking glass that we must step through to find this world is the 1980s American TV show Dallas and the unique relationship that the people of Romania had with this show. Sensing growing unrest among the populace, Communist Party officials chose to put Dallas on air as one of the three hours of programmed television (the other two were both political speeches). The idea was to show the depths of American decadence and corruption, which the show epitomized. The results, from the Party’s point of view, were not ideal.
The people loved Dallas, and businessmen in the burgeoning free (and black) market idolized J.R. Ewing. One even went so far as to recreate the Dallas Ranch as a hotel. Our journey down the rabbit hole begins at the Hotel Dallas. It will end somewhere in the past or future of Romania, Communism escaped or re-embraced.
Our guide (Ungar, playing a younger version of herself) explains to us the allure of artistry while we are both shrunk down small enough to fit in a parcel. Romanian philosophers debate the merits of living outside of history amid the backdrop of the public execution of the General Secretary of the Communist Party and his wife, which occurred on Christmas Day. And we’re even treated to scenes from Dallas re-enacted by children – some even modifying to tell a slightly different kind of story . . .
There really is nothing quite like Hotel Dallas. It is the rare movie that chooses to experiment with the forms of the documentary and the narrative features, and ends up somewhere wild in between.
Saturday, Apr 30, 6:30 PM, Scotiabank
Sunday, May 1, 2:00 PM, Scotiabank Theatre
Friday, May 6, 8:45 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Tickets can be purchased at the Hot Docs website.