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Between 1954 and 1963, the Grande Hotel in Beira, Mozambique was one of the most luxurious hotels in Africa. Built and controlled by the Portuguese who ruled the country for almost 500 years, it also came to represent everything that was wrong with Mozambique. The documentary Grande Hotel, screening at Hot Docs 2011, serves as microcosm of life Mozambique in the past 60 years.

The hotel was intended to attract a wealthy clientele when it opened in 1954 but never attracted enough people to ever really be profitable. The hotel closed in the early 1960s and lay dormant, except for a few special events, until the the mid-1970s when the Mozambican Civil War began. During the war, the basement of the hotel was used to hold political prisoners, but by 1981, the hotel was completely abandoned and taken over by local squatters. Over the years it has been stripped of anything of value, from the parquet floors being used for fuel, to wall furnishings being sold. Today there are 2,000 to 3,000 squatters who live in what’s left of the hotel, in brutal conditions with no electricity or running water.

The building is very dangerous and deadly, and living there is more about surviving than thriving. No one bothers to fix anything because it will be destroyed or stolen by someone else the next day. One sad moment in the film shows a resident using what money he has to brick up an open elevator shaft because people are regularly falling or being thrown down it. It’s touching because he builds the wall out of moral obligation rather than for personal gain, which is in complete contrast to the actions of the majority of the residents.

The main focus of the film is documenting what the hotel looks like today and interviewing its current inhabitants. The film also has narration by people who used to visit the Hotel during its heyday in the 1950s and 60s, but they are rarely shown on-screen. The only weakness to Belgian filmmaker Lotte Stoops’ documentary is the pace. It is a little slow for my taste and even at only 75 minutes in length, the film seemed a bit long at times. The film takes a little too long to explain how the hotel got into this state. Where the film works best is when the filmmaker has residents give a tour of the building, where they describe how the building is “managed” by local residents.

The hotel has become an unintended social experiment of the lifestyles of the most rich and the most poor. The film does an interesting job of mixing photos of the past with what the hotel looks like now. It has been said that humans go through life in one of two states of mind; conquest or survival. Grande Hotel is a fascinating journey into both worlds of the soul, shown in the form of a hotel.

Grande Hotel is screening at the Hot Docs Festival on Saturday, April 30th at 7:30 pm and Monday, May 2nd at 1:30 pm at various venues. Please visit the Hot Docs website for all the details.