Fantasy meets documentary in 'Hotel Dallas'

Contributed To The Press • Nov 5, 2016 at 7:55 PM

In the 1980s, everyone in the U.S. knew the Ewings of Southfork Ranch. With 13 seasons on network TV, the nighttime soap opera “Dallas” was an American icon. Little did Americans know that its glamour, capitalist conflict and images of lavish living held equal fascination in communist Romania, where it was one of the few non-propaganda-based television programs allowed.

Filmmakers Livia Ungur, from Romania, and Sherng-Lee Huang, who grew up in Knoxville, have used Ungur’s youthful love affair with the prime-time drama and its good guy, Bobby Ewing, as a jumping-off place for their first feature film, “Hotel Dallas,” a playful mix of fiction, fantasy and documentary.

The film follows the surreal journey of a young woman – portrayed by Ungur – her own tycoon father and her childhood TV idol as she navigates the failed utopias of communism and capitalism in Romania into a realm of ghosts – including Ewing – and lost time.

This “wondrous work of art slash documentary slash cultural commentary slash love song to both Romania and the United States” walks a fine line between fantasy and reality, says Huffington Post’s Nina Rothe. “It keeps your audience thinking and wondering until the very end.”

Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at East Tennessee State University will present “Hotel Dallas” on Monday, Nov. 14, at 7 p.m. in ETSU’s Culp Auditorium. The film is part of the South Arts Southern Circuit Tour of Independent filmmakers and is free and open to the public. The screening will be followed by a Q&A and reception with filmmakers Huang and Ungur.

The film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February as part of the Panorama Dokumente program. It stars Patrick Duffy, who portrayed Bobby Ewing in the original TV drama and the recent TV reprise of “Dallas.” In this new film, Duffy’s soap opera character dies in Texas and wakes up in Romania in a hotel that looks just like home.

“We had this crazy idea of ‘What if we use the death of Bobby Ewing, from Dallas, and try to find out what happens to Bobby Ewing during the dream season, when he’s not in Dallas?’ ” Ungur tells Hammer to Nail magazine. “Maybe he wakes up in Romania, in this replica of the Southfork Ranch. So that’s kind of how it started.”

Ungur and Huang had shot much of their film before they took a chance and asked Duffy to be part of the project. Duffy liked what he saw of the film so much that he agreed to do the work for a bottle of wine.

“He never messes up, never,” Huang says. “The first take is completely perfect and you’re like ‘That just made the scene 10 times better.’ ”

Duffy calls “Hotel Dallas” the “brilliant brainchild of these two young filmmakers,” and says he was thrilled to be involved in the project, in which he provides voice over as the ghost of Bobby, as well as on-screen appearances.

“This is a piece of incredible artwork,” Duffy said in a red carpet interview earlier this year. “This film will challenge people.”

Romania has the perfect set, the actual Hotel Dallas, built by Ilie Alexandru in the 1990s. Alexandru called himself, “the J.R. of Romania,” and decided to build a hotel that looked like the Southfork mansion in the TV show.

“Later he went to prison for fraud,” Ungur says. “His story is a perfect microcosm of Romania before and after the revolution.”

While Hotel Dallas “is a piece of history, showing the impact of the ’80s American soap opera ‘Dallas’ on Romania, a country where people were suffocating,” says the Huffington Post, its eclectic style of storytelling is “refreshingly offbeat and innovative as it mixes abstractions, dramatizations and outrageous musical numbers with more conventional elements of documentary, all of which illuminate the almost tragic absurdity of the tale,” says POV Magazine.

Now based out of New York City, Ungur and Huang, who are also marriage partners, also create sculptures and installations. Like her character in “Hotel Dallas,” Ungur immigrated to America to pursue her art. Huang, who began filmmaking while creating videos for his YouTube channel, Quiet Library, was born in East Tennessee.

The collision of these two cultures, America and Romania, is at the heart of the film. “Imitation is a big element of our fantasy lives, and also just a big part of how we learn, from the time we’re babies,” says Ungur, who was recently named one of 25 New Faces of Independent Film.

“Throughout the film, we’re constantly negotiating between real vs. fake, original vs. copy. Every documentary is selective in its version of the truth. Maybe we’re just a bit more honest about how we’re lying to the audience.”

The effect has been called “mesmerizing,” “lovely” and “a wondrous work of art” by reviewers.

“It is an experimental film, not constructed like a typical narrative film would be in the United States,” says Mary B. Martin School of the Arts Director Anita DeAngelis. “We are excited to bring ‘Hotel Dallas’ ’ unique combination of feature, documentary, music video, archival clips and humor to our local film audience. I’ve never seen a film quite like it.”

For more information on the film, visit hoteldallasfilm.com.

The Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers is a program of South Arts. Southern Circuit screenings are funded in part by a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts.

South Arts, founded in 1975, is a nonprofit regional arts organization building on the South's unique heritage and enhancing the public value of the arts. Their work responds to the arts environment and cultural trends with a regional perspective through an annual portfolio of activities designed to address the role of the arts in impacting the issues important to our region, and linking the South with the nation and the world through arts.

For information about the film or ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, call 423-439-TKTS (8587) or visit www.etsu.edu/martin.

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