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Hotel Dallas screened in Toronto at the HotDocs festival about a month ago. “Come,” a good friend of mine asked the day before. “The trailer looks really good.” I did not watch the trailer, but we got the tickets and decided to go.

The filmmaker was a Romanian expat living in New York. Not that surprising for a Romanian to direct a film about Dallas. After all, it was the most popular television show during the communist times. Scheduled weekly on Sunday afternoons, one hour, and at special times, a two-hour show, Dallas was definitely an event. Everyone would drop everything they were doing, parents hurrying to the windows to call up their children from the playgrounds, teens running up the stairs pushing to get to their TVs before the introductory soundtrack would be on.

Dallas was a TV American soap opera that screened in the late 70s and ran for just over a decade. Ideologically, the serial was intended as a propaganda tool, to show the ruthless of the North American capitalist system, but Romanians, Latin in spirit (as they like to see themselves), got easily caught up in the show’s amorous drama and they soon forgot what Dallas was all about: oil exploitation and/or any other forms of cold-blooded capitalism.

Hotel Dallas (the HotDocs documentary film) was perhaps envisioned to capture some of the nostalgic nuances of the (communist) era and to shed light on the bigger picture of what the transition to a democratically capitalist society meant for Romania.

It started beautifully: filming a dinner-ready table over the song of Mihaela Mihai. “De-ai fi tu salcie la mal,” which for sure made everyone in the audience tearful within a minute or two. If Romanians love something the most, that is the nostalgia for the past, a certain longing for remembering, for memory, for the re-imagination of the memory.

The film however, fell short in its delivery. It resembled a “ghiveci,” my friend said: a last minute cropped meal, half stew, half soup, that people used to prepare back in the day when food was hard to get by literally using anything they found around the house. “Pretty much like opening the fridge and mixing everything into one big meal,” my friend continued. Hotel Dallas, indeed, ended up as a documentary about everything and anything.

It started by recounting, through individual stories, the so-called Romanian narrative about watching the actual Dallas show. How it was to watch the film, what it meant at the time, and the nostalgia attached to it. Next, the filmmaker made an entrance as a protagonist. Documentary turned fiction. She played the daughter of a Romanian ex-magnate, now in prison for tax evasion, who built a hotel in the middle of nowhere, in Slobozia (a small city in the South of Romania, in Ialomiţa County, just over 100 kilometers East of Bucharest), which he then called Hotel Dallas.

The hotel and the tax-evasion stories are real stories. Constructed in the beginning of the 90s, Hotel Dallas was designed as an imitation of the actual Southfork Ranch, the Ewing family estate from the actual Dallas show. The surrounding land also included a holiday park called Hermes, as well as a miniature Eiffel Tower edifice, a symbol unrelated whatsoever with the Dallas theme but deemed worthy on the premises as a visitor landmark. Nowadays the Dallas complex is no longer in operation.

The ex-magnate was played by the filmmaker’ real father. Parents turned actors. Filmmakers turned protagonists. From this point on, the documentary-made-fiction turned itself into a musical piece. The father/magnate told a story by recounting it over an entire song. Then, it was the protagonist’ turn to sing.

Soon after, the filmmaker’ husband played the role of a singer in a sunflower field. We do not know why the need for songs and the filmmakers turned protagonists. Patrick Duffy followed suit in the story. Duffy was the actor who played Bobby Ewing in the actual Dallas show. Bobby was married with Pamela and their love story was of prime importance in the film. They were the most adored characters on screen. In our documentary, their relation was impersonated by a pair of young children, pioneers, whose entire conversations were spiced up by some satirical/parodist elements characteristics of the communist era (i. e. the Pioneer organization was a youth movement started in communist Romania in 1949 which prepared children for becoming party members. All students attending elementary and secondary schools were members of the Pioneer organization).

A big part of the documentary was about Patrick Duffy/Bobby Ewing conversing with the filmmaker turned protagonist, who, by now, seemed to have become the focus of the film. The documentary is no longer about Dallas but about the filmmaker herself. And Duffy talks and talks, the filmmaker strolls and strolls, smoking her slim cigarettes in frontal camera shots, and focusing on her own journey as an artist to New York, and the hardships of the artist life in the big American city, additionally impersonated by a newly made male character, artist by night and doorman by day.

The filmmaker protagonist is next captured in her city flat, ordering a metaphorically charged wooden cross from the Merry Cemetery, to be specially designed for the fictional Bobby Ewing character (the Merry Cemetery is located in Northern Romania and is famous for portraying the unique character traits of those deceased, by wood-carving them in witty, funny-tragic poems).

The cameras stopped intermittently on the Merry Cemetery imagery, the wooden crosses and some of the satirical inscriptions engraved, but also on the works of the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși — the Endless Column and the Gate of the Kiss. The protagonist also ended up travelling from her mom’s country house to Bucharest in a miniature box (a metaphorical symbol for something we do not yet know), and during the itinerary she conversed once again with Patrick Duffy.

From the box, she arrived at a dinner table with selected family members/friends with whom she had philosophical conversations about existential life themes, such as the theme of the infinite. I guess the connection with Constantin Brâncuși’ Endless Column (the infinite as the endless axis mundi of the world) was somewhat made here.

Much more of the documentary can be recounted, analyzed and described. Yet it is difficult to connect its dislocated elements and disparate modes of presenting the story.

Hotel Dallas amalgamated several films into one. A film about Romania nostalgia, represented through the memory of what it meant to watch the Dallas show in the communist times. A film about Dallas — the resort-complex in Slobozia, the ex-magnate and the tax-evasion case. A film about the filmmaker’ own story of immigration and respectively dislocation, moving to a new place, adapting to a new world while still longing for her native lost world.

A conversation with Patrick Duffy about his years-long film experiences and subsequent existential themes. A film about the theme of the “infinite” and what could possibly the infinite/endless leitmotif mean. And finally, a travel film about Romania, an itinerary and/or a public information campaign of what is worthy to be seen in the country — Constantin Brâncuși and the Merry Cemetery. And nevertheless a satirical impersonation of Bobby and Pamela story enacted by the pioneer students.

This is not to say that cinematography followed suit. Some parts of the film were beautifully filmed. Brâncuși’s Endless Column, the leafs-moving trees above the Gate of the Kiss, the camera catching the light shed on the Gate, were elements with a subtle and delicate touch. However, the documentary in itself was not much of a film about Dallas, nor about Romanian nostalgia, nor about the Dallas resort in Slobozia, nor about any major philosophical theme for that matter. It was a documentary addressing everything, anything and nothing in the same time. 

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Raluca Bejan

Raluca Bejan is an assistant professor of social work at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. She has a PhD and a MSW from the University of Toronto, and a BA in political sciences from Lucian Blaga...