Maya Duverdier, Amélie van Elmbt/ Belgium France Netherlands Sweden/ 2022/ 80 mins

This is not the first time New York City’s infamous Chelsea Hotel has been the subject of a documentary. In Dreaming Walls, the focus is the permanent tenants – some of whom have lived here for decades – who have now been residents of what has essentially become a building site. Since 2011 the hotel has undergone an extensive and seemingly endless renovation.

The building is embedded in Manhattan’s cultural history and has gained an almost mythical reputation. Countless famous artists, writers, and musicians – Oscar Wilde, Bob Dylan, Mark Twain, Patti Smith, Janis Joplin, Mariah Carey, Madonna – have stayed at the Chelsea and it has become a home for creativity, art, and bohemian, unconventional living. Many of the residents who feature fall into this sphere. They are quirky, distinctive, and imaginative, and they all seem very connected to the past – their own pasts, the hotel’s past, and the art movements of New York’s creative peak.

There is also a feeling of conflict and loss amongst the residents. Some of them are furious with the length of time the rebuild is taking; others admit they want it to last forever, since their rent has remained relatively low and they know it will rocket as soon as the hotel re-opens. There are also repeated references to ghosts and hauntings, with one resident even claiming that this is the reason for the hotel’s endless building work.

The documentary doesn’t use voiceover or even on-screen text to detail facts. Instead, its exploration of the Chelsea and its tenants unfolds via overheard conversations, informal interviews, and ‘quiet’ observational footage. The film is also interspersed with vintage recordings of art installations, parties, and artists at work in the Chelsea, intermittently highlighting the site’s rich history of creativity and culture. These montages are fairly brief, though. The overarching atmosphere is one of calm and reflection as the camera floats slowly through empty, deconstructed corridors and lingers on interviewees walking slowly and reminiscing in quiet rooms.

Dreaming Walls is a pensive piece. Rather than essaying a detailed chronology of the Chelsea Hotel or even examining the recent history of its renovation and residence policies, it is an exploration of atmosphere and effectively attempts to capture the artistic essence of the place. At times it is almost hypnotic in its evocation of bygone eras and it leaves us with a nostalgic yet honest sense of its unique tenants and their memories.

Screened as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2022