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Film

New York's famed Chelsea Hotel to be the focus of a new documentary

New York’s famous Chelsea Hotel is set to feature in a new documentary titled Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel which looks to document the building’s unique history. 

The feature will document the history of the hotel during its heyday, when it was frequented by the city’s artist elite. It follows right up to the past ten years when the relentless renovations have upended the lives of long-term residents.

The building is much more than a pile of bricks. The walls hold a rich history of famous comings, goings, relationships, secrets and art exhibitions. Over the decades since its establishment in 1884, it has accommodated the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Janis Joplin, Arthur Miller, Nikki de Saint Phalle, Madonna, Mark Twain, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude to name but a few. 

The new Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier-directed documentary portrays the building duly for all its unique character and is set to hit the theatres and streaming sites on July 8th. 

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The directors first lay foot in the hotel in 2018, when Van Elmbt was presenting her first feature film at the Cinépolis theatre just down the road during the Tribeca Film Festival. Having heard much about the building’s rich history, they couldn’t help but have a little nose around. While visiting the hotel for a look around, they met Merle Lister, an elderly dancer, choreographer, and long-time hotel resident. As the new film details, Lister spends much of her time in the Chelsea’s lobby and stairwell, where, long ago, she staged performances.

“This was love at first sight,” Duverdier said at the film’s US premiere at last month’s Tribeca Film Festival, located down the street from the hotel. After meeting Lister, the seed of the film was planted. They had met someone who had been a resident of the Chelsea Hotel for so long that she’s become part of the furniture. She is now wholly symbolic of the building itself as the two continue to age in tandem. 

After getting to know Lister a little, the directors came to discover that the hotel was still home to a number of creative souls, including Skye ‘Man of Wire’ Ferrante, who crafts unique 3-D portraits in wire, and artist Bettina Grossman, who was featured in the 2021 edition of Greater New York at MoMA PS1 in Queens. 

“All those amazing people living there amid the craziness of the work—we thought, we have to document this moment,” Van Elmbt said.

In an effort to capture the entire essence of the building, past and present, the film, which was executive produced by Martin Scorsese, jumps back and forth in time. Van Elmbt and Duverdier seamlessly merge breathtaking historical footage with scenes from recent years as the residents have fought to retain their homes amid increasingly inhospitable conditions. 

“It was a bit like a treasure hunt,” Van Elmbt said. “In the last months of the editing, we still received some footage. It was like if you’re playing with a puzzle, but you don’t know the final image.”

After finally piecing together the story of the hotel’s difficult renovation period, the Chelsea is set to soft-open next spring. The residency, which has now been cut to 44 people, will be able to return to life in the hotel as before, having out-lasted the chaos depicted in the documentary. 

“The conflict is so enormous,” Van Elmbt added. “We didn’t want to make an investigation movie. For us, it was a tribute to the spirit of the place and to the people who were living there.”

One might expect that the current owners – who retain anonymity in the movie – might have been apprehensive about a film documenting the protracted renovations and their battles with the tenants. Fortunately, they gave the directors unbridled access. “It was just the two of us young ladies with a 16mm camera,” Van Elmbt said. “It didn’t look like it was going to be a big movie.”

“They are sensitive to art, of course, and I think they understood what we wanted to do,” Duverdier added. “And I guess even a bad advertisement is an advertisement for a place.”

Watch the official trailer for the upcoming documentary below.