Colleen Keeley visited New Orleans last year, researching a feature film set in the historic, family-owned Hotel Monteleone. The New York-based director changed course after she met Aldon Barras, the hotel’s gregarious, then 79-year-old bellman.
Barras, also known as Hotel Al, has worked at the Hotel Monteleone for nearly 60 years. His ebullient personality and lifelong history in the French Quarter swept Keeley off her feet.
“We were filming as we drove around in Al’s car one day, thinking it would be research for the project we were working on,” the director said.
Later, when Keeley evaluated what she’d learned from the trip, her thoughts kept returning to Barras.
“It felt like Al was the story that we should tell first,” Keeley said. “He has tons of wonderful stories. He freely shares his thoughts about life. He graciously allowed us to follow him around with a camera for extended periods of time.”
The 24-minute “Hotel Al,” part of the New Orleans Film Festival’s “Louisiana Shorts: Portraits” program, screens Saturday at the Prytania Theatre.
“Fifty-five years and loving it,” Barras says in the film. “It’s all good. It’s all I know.”
“Hotel Al” captures Barras on the job, roaming the French Quarter on his feet and in his car and having a beer at his favorite bar, The Chart Room. Most of all, the documentary features Barras just being himself.
The longest-serving employee at the Hotel Monteleone, Barras has worked there as a driver, assistant manager, bellhop and, his latest role, official greeter.
Full Armor Films, a company founded by Frank J. Monteleone, a Monteleone family member who’s in the film and TV business, produced “Hotel Al.” Monteleone, a filmmaker based in New York and New Orleans, has known Barras all his life.
“Al claims he’s broken every generation into working at the hotel,” Monteleone said. “Every Mardi Gras, he took care of us. He still takes care of the family.”
Keeley found herself fascinated by Barras’ apparent indifference to cellphones, digital technology and the social media that her generation thinks it can’t live without.
“He’s so different from my generation and the way we value things,” she said. “He can barely work a flip phone. He’s probably sent two text messages in his life. He lives in another world, and he’s from a different time.”
The director also noted the warm, personal connections Barras has with people throughout his neighborhood.
“When he introduced us to various characters in the French Quarter, we saw that he values everyone the same,” she said. “Everyone knows him. He has affected his city and his neighborhood so powerfully, without any of the things that my generation thinks we need to do that.”
In the film, retired UNO professor Dr. Kenneth Holdritch offers literary counterpoint to Barras’ practical, working-man’s life.
“Dr. Kenneth Holdritch paints pictures of New Orleans as it used to be,” Keeley said. “The Quarter was a muse for a generation of writers. But then we have Al, who grew up amongst it all but wasn’t enthralled by it.”
Monteleone, an actor turned filmmaker, runs his company, Full Armor Films, with his wife, Kathleen. Full Armor’s upcoming projects include “American Reject,” a feature film co-written by Kathleen Monteleone and based on her experience as a reality show contestant on NBC’s “Grease: You’re the One That I Want.” The production will shoot in Baton Rouge next year.
“The goal is to bring everything down to New Orleans,” Monteleone said.
“Hotel Al,” New Orleans Film Festival’s “Louisiana Shorts: Portraits” program
WHEN: Saturday, 5 p.m.
WHERE: Prytania Theatre, 5339 Prytania St.
ADMISSION: $10 Film Society members, $13 nonmembers