When artist and newbie filmmaker Karen Gehres turned her camera on her friend and fellow painter Elise Hill, she thought she’d capture a few cool stories about Hill’s past as a runaway, a heroin addict, a stripper, and a prostitute—all while learning how to use her shiny new film equipment. Then Hill lost her stripper job as part of the Times Square clean-up orchestrated by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani, started behaving in an erratic manner, got evicted and began living in Central Park. Very quickly, Gehres realized she’d be making a very different movie from the one she’d originally envisioned.
The resulting documentary, Begging Naked, which chronicles Hill’s nine-year descent into paranoia and homelessness, is currently making the festival rounds, having recently played the Hollywood Film Festival, the Chicago Underground Film Festival, the Woodstock Film Festival, the New Orleans Film Festival, and Manhattan’s E.vil City Film Fest, where it was named “Best of Fest.” The movie, which is still in search of a distributor, will soon make its way to the New Jersey International Film Festival as well, where it will have three showings beginning November 2nd. The Independent recently spoke with Gehres about the trials and tribulations of shooting her first film, the pain of watching her friend’s life spiral out of control and her hope that Begging Naked will somehow get Hill the help she so desperately needs.
Why did you decide to make Begging Naked?
I met Elise in 1989. We’re both painters and she walked into a paint store I worked at on 13th Street in New York. We hit it off immediately and became really good friends. Over time, I found out about her background as a runaway and a stripper and about her drug use. In 1996, I got an internship at Film/Video Arts, [a non-profit New York film school and media arts training program]. I had access to film equipment, which I was learning to use. Elise saw me fiddling with it and said I should practice on her. She said she knew she was never going to write her autobiography, but she wanted to tell her stories. I didn’t even have a tripod. It was the first time I had ever pressed record. I thought it was just going to be a few stories about a teen runaway and how things went badly for her—but it turned out to be so much more. I met her after a stint in rehab, after she’d cleaned herself up and was selling her artwork and jewelry on the streets. She was really burnt out from doing that, though, so she soon decided to go back to stripping. Shortly after that, Giuliani came in and started wiping out 42nd Street, and in the process, he wiped out a way of life for a lot of people, including Elise.
Is that when things started going downhill for Elise?
Yup, that’s when she really started losing it mentally. She said the CIA was coming to get her, the mob was after her. She stopped paying rent because the guy she was subletting from was in on the conspiracy too. She ended up getting evicted and that very day she put together a cart and went to a church and slept there. She lives in Central Park now. She’s still doing amazing artwork in the park, though.
What does she do with it?
I sell it for her and give her the cash. She doesn’t want to hear about having a bank account because then “they” will come get her. Prices range, but I sold one of her pieces for $1,000. She can really make money last. I’m scared every time I give her the cash. I’m afraid people will know she has money and kill her for it. She’s not a wallflower, though. She’s a big girl, five-foot-ten, knows martial arts. She had a boyfriend who was a Vietnam vet. He taught her a lot about survival.
Have you tried to get her some help?
Many times. But she’s got her routine down and it’s hard to get her to go anywhere. The minute she hears that a place might have rules or a curfew she won’t do it. She doesn’t want any restrictions. She wants her freedom. So she’d rather take her chances out on the street.
What was it like watching a close friend go through these things?
It was exhausting. In the beginning, it was fantastic because it’s so much fun spending time with Elise. She’s very funny. Never feels sorry for herself. And it was great for her because she was getting down all the stories she knew she’d never get to tell otherwise. But when things got bad, it was really hard to listen. I didn’t just show up for this job—I’d known her for years. It was frustrating because I couldn’t stop anything from happening.
The film took you nine years to complete. Why so long?
Easy. When we started, I never knew these things would happen. It was just supposed to be an exercise in learning how to shoot. Things unfolded quickly, though, after that. Every time I thought it was the end of the story, it wasn’t. I couldn’t foresee that she was going to get evicted, that she’d live on the streets. She was an artist who danced. It was never going to be a story about homelessness. And then it was.
How much footage did you have after shooting for nearly a decade?
Surprisingly, not a crazy amount—maybe 70 hours. It was manageable. And I got it down to 73 minutes. We didn’t shoot every day. I don’t like overdoing it. Plus, it was shot on whatever camera was available at Film/Video Arts each time we wanted to shoot. So some of it is shot on High 8. Some of it is on Super-VHS. But so far, audiences have been telling me they can’t tell the difference—that the story is the important thing.
You’ve been making the festival rounds these last few weeks. How many did you apply to before you landed your first one?
I can’t even tell you how many festivals we were rejected from. There was so much rejection, you can’t believe it. But I learned a lot. I learned to never apply to a festival before a film is done. I learned how hard it is for a first-time filmmaker with a first-time movie to apply. The Nantucket Film Festival was the first festival to say yes. Once they said the movie was okay, other festivals seemed to think it was okay too. Thank God for Nantucket. If not for them, I’d probably still be floating in space.
Do you anticipate getting theatrical distribution?
I certainly hope so. There have been a few offers, but I don’t want to jinx things until they’re finalized.
Has Elise seen the film?
No, I’ve asked her many times. She loved being in front of a camera. She saw it as a way of getting her conspiracy stories on tape. But I think she’s a little scared to see it because every time I ask her to watch it, she says: “I want to see it in a real theater in New York—none of this festival crap.”
When all is said and done, what do you hope Begging Naked will accomplish?
I’m hoping that something good comes out of this for Elise—something bigger than selling a couple of her paintings here and there. I want her to be somewhere safe, somewhere she can have her freedom.
Leah Hochbaum Rosner is a freelance writer living in New York City.
To learn more about the film, visit www.beggingnaked.com