Film: Grande Hotel (2010) + Goodbye Mandima (2010)

May 5, 2011 | By

GrandeHotel2010_sFilm: Excellent

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Genre: Documentary

Synopsis: Documentary on the 2600 squatters than now live within the disintegrating skeleton of a once-elegant hotel in Mozambique.

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As director Lottle Stoops described to the audience at Toronto’s 2011 Hot Docs festival in Toronto, both she and her husband would plan vacations to exotic lands and immerse themselves in the environment and culture over a 3 month period, and while in the former Portuguese colony of Beira, Mozambique, she became rather transfixed by the ruin of a once-elegant Grande Hotel.

The stories of its luxurious past coupled with its present state as a home to 2600 squatters never quite left her mind, and 2 years later she returned with a camera crew. During a month-long filming expedition, she gradually developed a narrative in which the remnant of the country’s colonial past served as a metaphor for the peoples’ continuing transformation into an assertive, ethnically diverse independent nation.

On the one hand, the Grande Hotel was a prime example of what was wrong with colonialism: white folks planting themselves and their culture into another, and using their city planning and resources to separate people alone racial and economic lines. The whites lived in an exotic world that resembled an ongoing vacation, and the locals simply served, or served up natural resources exploited by the invasive white power.

Trumpeted as a new standard of luxury for the international jet set, the Grande Hotel boasted the country’s first Olympic-sized swimming pool, manicured gardens, a post office, cinema, disco, small shops, fine dining, and an unusually intimate limit of 120 guest rooms. Its main star sighting was actress Kim Novak, who reportedly hunted during her stay, years before adopting more humanitarian sensibilities and raising llamas.

The irony is almost laughable: regarded as a white elephant, the Grande was designed to impress rather than make economic sense, and with a huge staff required to maintain the needs of a select few, it continued to lose money until it was closed in 1963 – a pathetic 11 years of operation since its erection in 1952.

Although used as a conference center with a big pool, the hotel was eventually shuttered, and was used only twice afterwards by patrons: as a stopover for a cruise ship in the early seventies, and for a New Year’s party in 1980.

Once it fell into disrepair, squatters slowly moved in, and its resources were stripped away in a kind of reverse-colonialism: the oppressed removing all vestiges of servitude until nothing remained but its concrete superstructure. Metal pipes, fixtures, marble and glass were sold for cash, and the wooden floors, trimming, doors, and furniture were used for fire to cook food.

But the squatters didn’t exactly trash the place. The complex was divided into four blocks (branded A through D), and managed by chiefs whose job was to keep things ordered. Part of the duties include preventive maintenance, which sounds absurd since little remains of the original hotel, but maintenance extends to the massive tree roots that have broken through the foundation masonry – some crawling underneath the ceramic tiles on the roof patios.

The building is essentially disintegrating, and while unsafe, it maintains enough integrity to shelter a community of families who live, sell, barter, and trade goods. It’s hardly the ideal – most of the interviewed subjects would be prefer to live elsewhere – but there are benefits, such as being centrally located in a wealthy part of the city, and free bus service, which doesn’t exist outside of the formerly elite boundaries.

What’s incredible is how some inhabitants have lived there for decades, and that’s where director Stoops begins her doc, focusing on a former Block Chief named Moises who knows everyone and the building’s history after an 8 year stay. As the film’s pointe de parole, Moises provides a social tour of the complex, and he’s later joined by a friend named Le Piston (19 year resident) and Bilat (a veteran resident for an incredible 30 years). We also meet families, market sellers, and discover the ingenuity the squatters have used to make individual homes from practically nothing.

The pool is now a public bath and giant washing machine, rain water is caught in buckets placed on the concrete balconies, and dangerous areas such as empty elevator shafts have been bricked up using homemade cement to prevent drunks from tumbling several stories down.

Moises’ own apartment was created from an old stairwell, while others have managed to occupy former rooms, including No. 206 where Moises’ father once stayed while under governmental employ. Branded “Beef-Man,” his father was a rare local who enjoyed the building during its heyday, and frequently ordered by beef dinners.

Bilat recalls what remained intact when he arrived 30 years ago, such as a tiled kitchen with pots and pans and dishes, the parquet flooring, the wooden trim on support columns, furniture, and piping under the floor. With few remaining resources, some inhabitants are chiseling away concrete to sell for cash, while others have created their own toll regions, charging cash to pass through their hallway.

The pool house became the headquarters for the revolutionary guard during Mozambique’s civil war, but the small building is now a mosque; and the basement became a holding pen for political prisoners, once totaling up to 4,000. The former billiards room now houses a church congregation.

Contrasting scenes of inhabitants making a home from nothing (with some units wired with electricity) are sparse voiceovers of former guests (such as Moises’ father), and an interview with an elderly Portuguese woman who recalls the beauty of a country she once called home.

Stoops chose to make the one woman symbolic of the displaced Portuguese who lived in Mozambique and fled after its independence, finding themselves homesick because Portugal was a country completely alien to them.

It’s an odd dichotomy where white ex-pats felt displaced in their mother land, but part of the old woman’s longing includes a fanciful life with multiple homes and wealth in a colonial Never-Neverland.

A few stills, surviving home movies and newsreels provide rare glimpses of the Grande’s former glory and history, but it becomes clear there’s no logic in restoring the building to its former white elephant status.

According to the director, a South African firm has been a contract to implode the structure, but as of this writing it still stands. Some of the views expressed in the doc suggest using the building for a university or a kind of colonial historical centre, but its disintegrating superstructure makes it pretty impossible. The Hotel Grande is like a poorly planned Titanic on land, slowly eroding to nothing as the elements and human inhabitants pick it clean.

Stoops shows few of the surrounding buildings, but her wide shots – all elegantly composed and lit – reveal the grounds, the nearby coast, and local buildings erected in more recent times. On the one hand, it’s an island of social ills – her deliberate focus on the inhabitants’ social fabric omits the issues of prostitution, violence, and drugs – but in her eyes it’s also statement of a peoples’ resourcefulness.

In the post-screening Q&A, Stoops was asked several questions, including issues of hygiene, and while we’re shown the inhabitants’ method of toileting – wrapping waste in plastic and tossing it into a central atrium – the darker details are also omitted. Below the second floor are rats, and Stoops and her crew switched shoes before re-entering their hotel to avoid brining in traces of fecal matter.

When asked what shocked her the most, she described the dreadful smell to which the inhabitants have been acclimatized. Older inhabitants tend to get ill from diseases, and while malarial outbreaks are common in the country, the people living in the Grande Hotel fare better due to a curious irony: by removing and selling the thick glass panes that once protected the building interior from the strong sea air, the constant exchange of salty sea breezes makes it tougher for miasma to linger and infect. Malaria, however, does exist in the filthy pool, and there have been people infected with AIDS due to lingering prostitution at night.

For a DVD release, its producers ought to consider the inclusion of ephemeral material, using surviving still and film images of the hotel as a metaphor for the physical, sociological and political changes that tend to occur when a colonial territory reverts back to its people, and the quest to solidify a national identity after periods of upheaval have elapsed.

Stoops’ documentary – her first film – is gripping for its focus on the hotel’s long-term guests, and she succeeds in shaping Grande Hotel as a document on people rather than a sentimental ode to an artifact from the colonial era.


Goodbye Mandima (2010)

Screened prior to Grande Hotel during Hot Docs was Robert-Jan Lacombe’s short documentary Goodbye Mandima, a film school production in which the director slowly unravels the mystery of an exotic location, and the family we’re introduced to at the beginning, poised to leave on a small plane.

The narration addresses the audience in the second person (you), making them a participant in the curt story of a family saying goodbye to friends before a flight to France, as they’ve done every two years.

This time the family never returns, and Lacombe’s stills (given panning and zooming movements through Adobe After Effects) reveal small slices of life, of the kids’ friends that would lose their own sense of childhood a few months later when a civil war and genocide broke out in Mandima, Zaire.

Lacombe’s approach is to use simple narration, basic sound effects and stills, saving video footage from inside the small plane until the end during takeoff. Like Grande Hotel, Lacombe’s short shares the same peculiar sense of detachment where white Europeans return to their birthplace, but cannot identify with the corresponding culture due to years in a completely different land.



© 2011 Mark R. Hasan


External References:

Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Grande Hotel WebsiteWikipedia Entry
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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