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BERLINALE 2022 Panorama

Amélie van Elmbt & Maya Duverdier • Directors of Dreaming Walls

“We wanted to welcome the audience through the backdoor of the Chelsea Hotel”


- BERLINALE 2022: The Belgian directors reflect on the transformation process of this mythical artistic hub of the 20th century, which mirrors the demise of an era

Amélie van Elmbt & Maya Duverdier • Directors of Dreaming Walls
(l-r) Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt

Belgian directing duo Amélie van Elmbt & Maya Duverdier have just presented at Berlinale’s Panorama Dokumente their documentary Dreaming Walls [+see also:
film review
interview: Amélie van Elmbt & Maya Duv…
film profile
, featuring some ghosts but mostly current inhabitants of the legendary Chelsea Hotel in New York which has been an artistic shelter for a number of pop and counter culture icons in the recent past. Today, it is still hosting a group of intriguing inhabitants, while also undergoing reconstruction in order to reopen soon as a luxury hotel. The directors talk about their conscious intention to focus on the present day of the building, discuss the filming and the editing process, as well as the combination between contemporary footage and archival material.

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Cineuropa: What attracted you to the Chelsea hotel?
Maya Duverdier: We began this adventure four years ago while in New York for the screening of Amelie’s previous film The Elephant and the Butterfly [+see also:
film review
interview: Amélie van Elmbt
film profile
, which was taking place on the same street of the Chelsea Hotel. Since we weren't staying for the whole projection, we walked around and suddenly saw that red brick facade. We knew about the place as we had read Just Kids by Patti Smith when we were young and had this fascination with the 1970s. Therefore, when we saw the building, we thought we should make a movie about it.

Amélie van Elmbt: We came upon the place by chance, we entered and realised that it was transforming into a luxury hotel. The encounter with one of the current tenants, Mel Easter, was extremely motivating and she became a central character in the film. She was standing there in the lobby and immediately caught our attention. Then she invited us to her room and told us about the situation, about those approximately fifty residents living inside amidst the chaos of the construction. Little by little, we realised there was a film to be made about those last residents and an era fading away. What really triggered us was the discovery of what Chelsea really is nowadays, beyond the legends.

That is the charm of the film, that you left the famous stories behind and focused on what it is today, in this process of transformation. I suppose it was a conscious decision?
MD: Yes, firstly because there are so many films and books about the glamorous past of the Chelsea Hotel that we decided to put everything aside and really try to just be there in a humble position, getting to know the people who are currently in it, perceiving it as their home. Our intention was to keep a distance from the mythology and deconstruct it. We wanted to welcome the audience through the backdoor of the Chelsea Hotel and to show something different from what people usually imagine.

I assume there were a lot of stories to tell, so what were the priorities while selecting the ones to shed light on?
AvE: It was an organic process. Mel, for example, became our guide through the building from the very beginning, so she naturally became part of the film's texture. She introduced us to other people with whom we resonated and managed to build one story through their multiple voices. We did not push anyone to participate, they were coming to us voluntarily. The situation is also complex because many people are against the renovation, but we did not want to take any side as this is not a political film.

MD: We had around 150 hours of material to select from, so we worked in an organised manner – with images on the walls, trying to establish the links between them. It felt like playing with a puzzle without having an idea about the final image, so it took us a year to find echoes between the archival material and the scenes we had shot. We were searching for a strong position for the archival images in the film, it was a matter of creating a dialogue between the different types of footage we had.

And you managed to combine them so well that in certain episodes, it takes time for the viewer to realise whether the footage is contemporary or from the past. In this line of thinking, how did you access the archival footage?
AvE: It was a treasure hunt as those are not official archives and are not as organised or easily available as the ones from the Second World War, for example. Through the searching process we met a lot of interesting people from all over the world and we were receiving material until the very end of the editing process. The structure of the film as we are seeing it now emerged in the last two months of post-production. We were trying to be open and welcoming till the very end.

MD: Still, the very first archives we reached came from Mel, from her personal memory collection. We digitised them from VHS tapes and it was the foundation material we relied on. Then the shooting period continued for about two years, during which we were travelling back and forth with a little camera. Eventually, we went to shoot with a team.

The film was largely supported by Belgian institutions, as well as Swedish ones. How did you manage to persuade European institutions to invest in this very American film?
MD: The Chelsea Hotel is out of borders and its history is spread all over the world. It in a way belongs to the western cultural heritage of the 20th century.

AvE: There is also a French connection as the architect of the building is from France, but what is universal is this idea of an open shelter where everyone, of whatever race and gender, could find a room on their own. I assume our supporters recognised this trans-border value.

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