Smile Politely

Exclusive interview with Karen Gehres’, director of Begging Naked

It would be safe to say that artist and fledgling filmmaker Karen Gehres had no idea what she was getting herself into in 1996, when she turned her camera on for the first time. Her fellow artist and friend, Elise Hill, had agreed to be the subject of her movie and was recounting for her the first of many stories she would relate about her tumultuous past. Having run away from home as a teen, forced to survive as a prostitute and stripper, and becoming a heroin addict along the way, Gehres knew that the stories she would capture on celluloid would, at the very least, be compelling. However, as happens often with the best of documentaries, her resulting film, Begging Naked, did not proceed as she had envisioned, as Hill’s life took a series of unexpected turns, which resulted in a compelling human drama and a poignant tale of friendship.

“She and I made a pact at the beginning,” says Gehres of her partnership with Hill. “The project picked speed quickly and I showed her a rough cut early on, before her paranoia set in. We decided to see this through to the end. Of course, that was before things got rough and her addiction took hold again.” It would be hard to imagine that things could get worse for Hill, having survived on the streets from an early age, gone through a stint in rehab and making due by selling her hand made jewelry on the street. Sick of just scraping by, she decided to return to stripping at 30 years of age, albeit with a unique condition as part of her act.

“At Show World (the strip club where Hill performed), she found some wooden boards in the basement,” recounts Gehres, “and as part of her act, she would paint on them on stage, recreating what she was seeing at the time. The paints she used were cheap and fluorescent and she was working in the dark. She would complete them in 20 minutes and while they are crude, they are honest in what they express.” The garish aesthetic of these paintings captures the sordidness of the environment in which they were created, however in some of them, there is a sense of sympathy for the patrons at Show World.

Hill’s artistic output was not limited to her hurried work at Show World. In addition to her jewelry, she creates dolls as well as other paintings, meticulous works that utilize a compelling combination of light and dark tones that mirror the duality of her personality. “She can change up styles at the drop of a hat,” says Gehres. “Everything about her life is in her art and I think it is the one thing that keeps her going.” There is a sense of escape in these other works, as they picture peaceful, yet melancholy landscapes, while the most striking painting is that of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, showing the young girl suspended in the water, giving herself up to whatever the fates have in store for her. It is no great leap to think that Hill has placed herself in this work.

While Show World was perhaps not the most positive place to earn a living, it was a relative safe haven that would eventually be closed due to Mayor Giuliani’s efforts to clean up Times Square. Once that happened, it sent Hill on a downward spiral that would result in her being evicted and becoming addicted once more to hard drugs. All of this is recounted in Begging Naked, a film that Hill herself has yet to see.

“She used to say that she did not want to see the movie at a film festival, thinking most of them were held at bland multiplexes and that she would wait until it was playing in a real theater in New York,” says Gehres. “But when it was finally shown at a theater in New York earlier this year, she came up with another excuse. Finally, she admitted to me that it would be too painful for her to watch. Roger (Ebert) invited her to this festival and I thought she might be persuaded to attend, but her paranoia prevented her from coming, as she said that something would happen to the plane or train we would take to get there.”

While Hill is the subject of Naked, one can’t help but wonder how the whole process of making the film, which is still in need of a national distributor, has affected Gehres. “I really don’t know. I can’t say yet because in my mind, it’s not done. In my mind, I still have to see this through until Elise’s story is told.”

Begging Naked will be screened at Ebertfest on Friday, April 24 at 1:30 p.m.

More Articles