Hotel Nueva Isla: In search of the lost treasure
by Alfonso Rivera
- The documentary co-directed by Irene Gutiérrez and Javier Labrador, and shot in a derelict hotel in Havana, is being released in Spain after having screened at various festivals, such as Rotterdam
Hotel Nueva Isla, the feature debut by Ceutan filmmaker Irene Gutiérrez, is a Spanish-Cuban co-production that was shot without leaving the confines of an old, but once magnificent, hotel in Old Havana, which has today become a crumbling shadow of what it was, where Jorge de los Ríos – a former government official – lives with his dog and other homeless people, including Waldo, La Flaca and the little girl he is teaching to read. Right from the very first shot of the film, we see this Don Quixote figure – who does not leave the erstwhile Nueva Isla Hotel – looking for something on the roof of one of its ruined floors. The noise of the city pours into the scene, as does the perseverance of this elderly man afflicted by frail health, engrossed in a search that keeps him clinging onto life and to this place that symbolises a glorious past and a ruined present. The symbiosis between the person and his surroundings becomes absolute over the movie’s 71-minute running time.
Without getting in the way of the movements of their main character, Gutiérrez and her co-director Javier Labrador’s camera delicately, beautifully (despite the surroundings) and respectfully portrays Jorge’s routine: we see him giving his loyal dog a bath, sprucing himself up and keeping up something akin to a relationship with Josefina. During one of those encounters, we hear a song, but the rest of the film entrusts its soundtrack to that murmur of the Cuban capital that floods through the large windows of this private universe that the film’s protagonist has built for himself (sadly, he died after the shoot had wrapped). We only glean titbits of information about his family and past through the conversations he holds with the other inhabitants of the building, who start to abandon it one by one, leaving our man alone with his obsession of finding treasures there, and with the sentences he writes on the crumbling walls, as the driving rain and the spontaneous vegetation gradually and mercilessly invade it.
With a screenplay by Lorenzo Mora (who was also the editor) and the directors themselves, this documentary teetering on the verge of fiction had its world premiere in the Bright Future section of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (read the news). It subsequently won awards at Jeonju (South Korea), Cali (Colombia), DocsDF (Mexico), Miradas Doc, the Cuba Young Film Festival, and in Trinidad and Tobago. The movie’s female co-director had been the head professor in the documentary department at the famous San Antonio de los Baños Film School and made her debut in 2012 with the short film Border Diaries. Now, with a skeleton crew of two people, she was able to gain access to the bowels of this monumental architectural whale, beached in time and space, with the static camera capturing moments with those almost pictorial aesthetics that bring Pedro Costa to mind. The film thus transforms the immense building into a place that, at times, seems like a tropical rainforest around which Jorge roams freely with his pet, or a prison that he now cannot – and doesn’t want to – escape from.
Hotel Nueva Isla was completed thanks to the efforts of El Viaje Films and Producciones de la 5ta Avenida, and it was supported by the ICAA, the Programa Ibermedia and the Sundance Institute (where it snagged the Development Award).
(Translated from Spanish)