Hotel Nueva Isla—which calls itself a documentary—does not contain much dialogue. But it doesn’t have to. Everything that happens in the life of Jorge, a non-actor whom the film follows, vibrates with a clear poignancy that one can see and feel.
The film is set in the formerly luxurious Hotel Nueva Isla in Old Havana. The hotel is now in ruins, but it is home to people living on the fringes of society, like Jorge, a retired public servant. Abandoned by his wife and children, Jorge’s only motivation, like a Don Quixote forgotten and gone astray, is to continue a quest he’s followed for years: dig among the dangerous ruins of the hotel, where he is convinced that the former owners hid valuable objects before fleeing the Cuban Revolution.
Hotel Nueva Isla is directed by Irene Gutiérrez Torres and Javier Labrador Deulofeu, from Spain and Cuba, respectively. Both graduated from the International Film and Television School of San Antonio de los Baños (EICTV) in Cuba, in the fields of documentary filmmaking and cinematography, respectively. Both have worked independently on films in Cuba and also have had their work exhibited in various film festivals; Gutiérrez currently teaches documentary filmmaking at EICTV.
Festival blogger Aurora Herrera connected with Gutiérrez, who will attend the ttff/14, and discussed Hotel Nueva Isla with her.
The pace of the film is very reminiscent of El Coronel No Tiene Quien Le Escriba (No One Writes To the Colonel), the short story by Gabriel García Márquez. Was that influential at all to this film?
Honestly, we had not thought of it. There is a sequence where George smokes, listening to the radio. The editor of the film, Lorenzo Mora, really liked the radio show because it talks about the unconditional company of a book, mentioning Hamlet, Don Quixote and the Buendía family (from Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude). At the time we used it just as a nod to the viewer. Recently someone compared the film to The Old Man and the Sea but these were real surprises because they were never related to the completion of the film.
Is Jorge, the man, a metaphor for Old Havana?
Not necessarily for Havana Vieja, but of a time that has ended, not only in Cuba but also in the rest of the world; a time when political and social utopias were possible and worked as true drivers of citizen unification. There is also something that has changed with respect to the generation before us, and it’s a sense of historical consciousness. I think the end [of the film] is a metaphor for a way of life and a realisation that that world has ended.
George’s first speaking scene is with a child. Is this significant?
We liked the idea that Jorge’s first words (letters) were “A-E-I-O-U.” And we think it worked well because it’s like starting to go slowly into their universe, a universe full of cryptic words we see written on the walls, but we cannot read. They are more than declarations or poems, more than moods or facts. I think in the end Jorge used the words [as a] form of protest. It was his way of marking his presence, of dominating the space, to have his own kingdom—the Hotel—claimed solely by his words.
On the other hand, Jorge belonged to the generation of Cubans who went on literacy drives throughout the country and also on international missions, especially in Africa. A good friend told me that when she was filming in Angola many interviewees spoke Spanish because their teachers were Cubans. It begins like this because it’s like George wants to give the child, Marian, his generation’s legacy, “the baton” as Lorenzo Mora said, because George was part of that generation who believed, as José Martí said, that culture liberates man from the yoke of slavery. Because of this, he read all the time, and perhaps, as a result, increasingly connected less with the world around him.
Why was this important story for you to tell?
We didn’t know if it was important or not, but the moment we entered the old hotel were amazed at the possible stories that could be held in its walls, as it was built in 1926. Although a ruin was not enough [to make a story], we were caught up with Jorge and his routine, which we took the time to understand, and his motivations for wanting to shut out the world.
For us it was important to focus on him and the building and treat them as one piece, so we chose the lens carefully—everything was done with an old 22mm photo lens—which allowed us to be close enough to Jorge without losing the feel of the space.
We wanted to make a film about resistance, of walls, of man but also a time when dreams seem possible but never carried out. And we wanted to do it Jorge’s way, without [much] dialogue, without too many characters, following his routine for a year, which turned out to be the last year of his life.
The film seems to rely heavily on lighting and mood. How much effort went into creating this particular sense of isolation?
It was not that hard because the mood, except for some occasional touches of humour from Jorge, was there almost all the time. We worked mostly at night for two reasons: the sound (Havana is a very noisy city) and discretion. On set we were only two people, Javier and I. We would go into a routine ritual of getting up at 2am, record all night, download, view, decide, sleep, come back around lunch and work until 6 to 7pm to download, view, decide, sleep, and so on for a year. This creates a routine of work, but also a mood of boredom, weariness, even not knowing absolutely what movie we were doing. We got lost several times along the way. But Jorge was complicit, and that led us to continue filming without having a clear understanding of how the film would eventually end, but with the intuition that we wanted to talk about a very lonely man in a place that resists, that is suspended in time, which was both his kingdom and his prison.
In relation to light Javier did a delicate preliminary study of the times and places where we could find light for the filming that we wanted to achieve during the day—it was basically a twilight achieved between sunsets and sunrises. An evening light brings us to the souls of those who come to the hotel or those emerging from it—the characters—but also, a new morning light will outline every crack, every wall, every corner of the old hotel to give us in volumes an idea of its past glory, how the old giant rose from its ruins in its days of life.
Regarding the night, Javier worked all the time with one household lamp, a fluorescent tube— the same one that George had in his room—placing it at key points to highlight the silhouettes. With nothing more than this lamp, Javier filmed the characters as if they were ghosts that came out of nowhere, with no time, belonging more to the other past lives of the hotel, then the present time.
As for the effort to capture the isolation, this was the work of Carlos Garcia, the sound post-producer. The Hotel is located near downtown, so from dawn the noise was always a problem. Carlos, who was responsible for the soundtrack, did an amazing job of cleansing and recreating the sound in the film. It has the aura of timelessness, reaching and even reinvents the “sonic personality” of the hotel itself.
Can you talk about the location that the film was shot in? Why did you choose that particular hotel?
We chose that particular location because we fell in love at first sight with the hotel. It’s not the most famous or most “beautiful” ruin of Old Havana, nor was it the most luxurious hotel nearly a century ago; in fact it was a second-category hotel but we were wowed when we saw it. It was night, and the walls from the outside impressed us. Day after day we went and then we met Jorge; he was reading at the door, taking advantage of the last rays of sun. He invited us to go up and see his room with wall writing, full of stacked roof tiles. Then we found that he escaped unimaginable things in his past, and [our affinity for him] was growing day after day. Finally we decided to phase out the other players we had and focus on him—we had to follow him, without judgment, simply accompanying him in his rituals and his basic relationships with others. And little by little Jorge and the hotel became the same thing.
The hotel in the film seemed to be falling apart. Did you and Javier ever experience any safety issues?
One morning I was doing sound on the top floor, which is uninhabited because of the danger of collapse, but away from the traffic. I heard a heavy blow on the headphones and I got scared. Many sounds were heard in the morning that always disturbed me, but that was a terrible blow. A big chunk of ceiling had collapsed in one of the adjoining rooms. When we saw the piece we looked at each other but never talked about it.
With Jorge we also had an unpleasant episode. It was very dark and we decided to record him outside of his room, digging at night. Upon returning to his room, one floor down, Jorge almost gets on the elevator shaft instead of the stairs. He left without waiting for us and we were picking up the camera and sound. Luckily Javier grabbed him and jumped within tenths of seconds. Since that time we decided to do things with a conscience and awareness that we didn’t have before, and we realised that we should be extremely careful because although Jorge knew the hotel perfectly, he did not see well at night. So we decided to not go outside of his room anymore when it was dark. In addition we were recording without any authorisation or filming permit because the hotel was in such bad condition so we thought that we should be discreet all the same.
I think the beauty of this film lies in the fact that it is true to life, which does not necessarily have a happy ending, where jorge gets in touch with his children or settles with the woman who wants to be his partner. Why is this method of telling important stories for you?
We would have liked the other ending. In fact we are tired of movies with sad endings. We tried to bring Jorge’s oldest daughter from Miami and even dreamed of filming George and his dog packing his things to meet his daughter there. But his daughter never wanted to participate. We also tried with his two sons who live in Havana, but they only stayed a while and never returned to see their dad. His other son Henry is gone. We met him and even recorded with him at the beginning of the shoot, but then he left and we never knew where he went.
Another ending that we thought was beautiful was George and his dog Patabán at Pier Batabanó ready to take the boat to the Isle of Youth, where Josephine lives. But neither was possible because George did not want to leave the hotel, or enter into a stable relationship. So we shot until we stopped filming because George got sick and became very thin. We went to the doctor several times, but unfortunately Jorge was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw and the operation was very violent. He came to see a cut of the film, wanted to find our mistakes and was very suspicious but when he finished watching it, he said that it did not seem bad, and that he thought he was not all that bad of an actor.
George soon stopped eating and died the following week.
Is the name Hotel Nueva Isla—New Island Hotel—meant to be ironic?
It is the name of the hotel. In fact we wanted to change it because almost all movies made in Cuba contain the word “island” in their title and we knew it was going to lend itself to the metaphor, but we could not find a better one. As I said above, it is a metaphor of the island, perhaps of the Cuban Revolution, but also a way of life that is no longer possible, and that also goes for my parents’ generation in Spain: the dreams and ideals that they fought for during the cruel war have no meaning today and are no more than a mirage. We now watch others who are and have been in power increase their material wealth in the midst of a country with not only a huge economic crisis, but also a spiritual one.
George seems to take very good care of his dog.
Patabán is a stray dog that was almost killed when someone poured boiling water over him. A woman in the neighborhood who cares for many dogs gave it to Jorge because he had a dog that had recently died. Soon Patabán and George became in sync; both were lovers of the street—”a libidinous dog as young as its owner,” said George. And Patabán would go out looking for romance but always returned to the hotel. For Jorge, it was more important to get food for Patabán that for himself. They both cared for each other.
Hotel Nueva Isla will be showing at the ttff/14 on the following dates. Irene Gutiérrez Torres will be present at the second screening to engage in a question-and-answer session with the audience.
Wed 17 Sept, 3.30pm, MovieTowne POS
Sat 27 Sept, 6.30pm, Little Carib Theatre Q+A
[vimeo 84674727 620]