Casting a shadow that stretches back more than a century, the Chelsea Hotel on New York City’s 23rd Street has been a haven for artists, writers, and musicians (everyone from Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin to Charles Bukowski and Leonard Cohen have resided there) since opening its doors in 1884 until closing for renovations this past August. Drawn to the history of the legendary landmark, filmmaker Corinne van der Borch (MFA 2009 Photography, Video and Related Media) took her cameras inside, where she captured the story of one its longtime residents, artist Bettina. The result is Girl With Black Balloons, a portrait of a reclusive artist hidden away with her work for decades. The film recently won the Grand Jury Prize in the Metropolis category at the DOC NYC festival, so the Briefs caught up with Borch via email to learn more about the project.
What sparked your fascination with the Chelsea Hotel?
I stayed at the Chelsea Hotel for an evening many years ago and remember wandering the stairwell filled with works of art. Oftentimes I get inspired by a physical object—in this case the cast-iron stairwell, like a backbone winding through this legendary hotel with so many hidden stories.
How did you come across Bettina, and what made you think she would be an interesting subject for a film?
I met Bettina on the staircase…I felt that she was the reason for me to come back with my camera. I wanted to investigate her…Ever since our first encounter on the stairwell I have been struggling to document her adventures, her moods and her surroundings; a rent stabilized, cluttered apartment in the Chelsea Hotel in which she has spent half…of her artist life as a recluse. Bettina has surrounded herself with boxes filled with works of art that have never left her studio. An artist’s quest for acknowledgement can be extremely difficult. Living in the Chelsea Hotel doesn’t necessarily mean fame and certainly not fortune.
How did you seek to portray Bettina’s personality and eccentricity to the audience? Did the two of you have any differences in vision that needed to be worked out?
While shooting, the line of who is in control is constantly crossed. I am not just observing, but actively present throughout the film. I am provocative from time to time, creating uncomfortable moments. What starts off as a game of trust ends up almost as a relationship between a mother and a daughter. I don’t think Bettina had any idea what sort of film I was making. She’s such a great conceptual artist. I don’t think it ever occurred to her I was making something so personal, gentle, humane and confrontational. We share a similar visual sensibility, and [I feel us] both being women made her trust me. Her work ethos is without any compromise. She would call me and yell at me when I was hanging out with friends instead of working! Her work as an artist is without a doubt some of the best work I’ve ever seen. I gave it context with my film.
Do you have any new projects in the works?
I’m currently developing a new project…The title is “The Twin Moms,” a story about 80-year-old identical twin sisters. They speak in stereo and move [synchronously] and are the only black folks on the white side of town, a story about two sides of one track. And I hope in the future I will find a place to start teaching non-fiction filmmaking.
Images: (top) Corrine van der Borch at DOC NYC. (bottom) Screenshot of Bettina from Girl With Black Balloons.
Watch a trailer for Girl With Black Balloons below.