The impact of the long-running TV series “Dallas” on Eastern Europe, already the subject of books and academic studies, is now the focus of a docu-fiction work, “Hotel Dallas,” made its world premiere in the Berlinale’s Panorama Documentary section Feb. 15. Film screens today and Saturday.
Written, produced and directed by New York City-based wife and husband artist duo Livia Ungur and Sherng-Lee Huang, the film, in which former “Dallas” star Patrick Duffy makes an appearance, is both a nostalgic look at the primetime soap as well as an indictment of the corruption that has plagued Romania since the end of communist rule.
During the 1980s, “Dallas” was the only U.S. series on Romanian television. Some have speculated that the regime of President Nicolae Ceausescu allowed “Dallas” on TV in order to show the greed and corruption of American capitalism. Ungur, who grew up in Romania and immigrated to the U.S. in 2004, rejects the argument, saying she doesn’t believe Ceausescu was naive about the effect of the show.
“By the ’80s, people were paranoid and hungry. Literally hungry — the food shortages were bad. For us, ‘Dallas’ was like a fairytale. We watched it in the evening, and then we went to sleep. It’s possible that the show actually bought Ceausescu more time. It was a form of appeasement. Pop culture can be an agent of change or an agent of complacency, or even both at the same time. I think this applies to present-day America, as much as ’80s Romania.”
Ungur partly agrees with “Dallas” star Larry Hagman’s assertion that the show helped win the Cold War by planting the seeds of capitalism behind the Iron Curtain. The show provided a vision of America that was seductive, she says.
“Who wouldn’t want a mansion and a swimming pool and a big car? Especially if you’re living in a communist housing block. Maybe, by priming our hunger for these things, ‘Dallas’ played a small role in bringing about the fall of communism. But the show was also a distraction.”
The series’ massive following lasted beyond the fall of Ceausescu’s communist government in 1989. “Hotel Dallas” follows a real-life Romanian oligarch who, in the 1990s, not only styled himself after J.R. Ewing, but also built the Hotel Dallas, a resort modeled after the series’ Southfork Ranch, in the southeastern Romanian city of Slobozia.
“The film is about the relationship between fantasy and reality, so it made sense to include both,” says Ungur, who plays the daughter of the fictionalized oligarch. Her character is likewise obsessed with “Dallas” and in love with Duffy, who played Bobby Ewing on the show. Like her alter-ego, the daughter moves to America, becomes an artist and ends up directing a film starring Duffy. In the film (within the film), Duffy plays a character who dies in Texas and wakes up in Romania, in a hotel that looks just like his home.
The filmmakers say they needed Duffy to make the concept truly complete but were nevertheless shocked when the actor agreed to work on the film.
“The shoot was surreal,” says Ungur, adding that there was almost no difference between Bobby on TV and Duffy in real life. “He’s handsome and charming and gallant — and he came to our rescue when we needed him most.”
Ungur and Huang are already at work on their next project. “We are writing a film that involves ninjas and leftist political movements in the ’60s and ’70s,” says Huang. “I can’t reveal too much, but it could easily be the most avant-garde ninja movie ever made.”