Skip to content

Female Filmmaker Project: Begging Naked (Karen Gehres, 2007)

***note:This film was not part of the scheduled 52 movies for this project, but after viewing it I decided to review it for this project***

More than anything I think this film cements the importance of sex work as a viable job for some women. Legislators and lawmakers that are so protective towards these women do more harm than good, by cutting off their source of income as they find their way onto the streets without a job. That is the case for Begging Naked’s Elise Hill whose life begins to unravel after Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani wiped out the sex shops and prostitution that used to make up the culture of 42nd Street in favour of the now disneyfication of the area. Elise Hill’s life wasn’t pretty when she was stripping for a living, but it was still a life worth living, and in putting her out on the streets she was cut off from a world she had much to give to.
Elise Hill was a runaway at age 15. Her household was physically abusive, and she ran off to New York to be an artist. She wanted more than anything to go to art school, and found her way into sex work once she arrived. She struggled for a very long time, and started using heroin to cope with her life, but she came to a realization during those difficult years, kicked those drugs and put her way through art school by selling paintings on the side. When the film begins it’s seven year journey she goes back to stripping at the age of 30 to support herself, but continued to paint. She was an artist first and foremost and took great pride in the work she was creating, which at this time was portraits of the slimy men and beautiful women of these clubs. She had great compassion for her friends she was painting, and in 1997 seemed to have her life put together even if she was living a very small life. Regardless it was a happy one. Then the streets she grew up on were painted in a different kind of capitalism and she lost everything.
This eventual spiral is what makes up the majority of Begging Naked’s narrative as the camera mostly just follows Elise around from place to place as she attempts to sell her art, as her life begins to come apart at the seems. It’s a difficult narrative to take in, because all of this was preventable, but in trying to clean up the streets of New York City, Giuliani only crowded them with good people. 
Elise was one of those good people, and it’s downright tragic to see her lose control of her mind towards the end of the picture. She struggles with feelings of paranoia mostly, and begins to think that the CIA are listening in on her, but she finds a kind of solace in that belief as she begins to jot down everything in a journal. She thinks they are listening and one day what she’s writing will be available for everyone to read, because they will post it on the internet. In a way this film is that journal, and director Karen Gehres gave her that wish.
The most striking aspect of this film is it’s depiction of homelessness not as something that happens to specific people, but a thing that can happen to anyone. Gehres’ humanity towards her friend comes through as she doesn’t paint Elise as a tragic figure, but one of perseverance. We see the moment she gets kicked out of her apartment, but it doesn’t end with a cut to black and then her on the streets. We see Elise fight for her possessions that she holds dear and the cat that’s been living with her, whom she loves. She takes her paintings as well, because this is her lifeblood and later on even when she is on the streets she is creating art. It’s good art too, as her paintings symbolize a confidence in portrait as she painted a type of person who isn’t shown as beautiful very often: the women of the capitalist sexual world who are doing jobs just to get by. She has a kinship with those women, because she is one of them, and Gehres respects that. The movie states that her art today resides in a stocking room warehouse collecting dust, and Elise is still living in Central Park.
Published inFemale Filmmaker Project

One Comment

  1. Anonymous Anonymous

    I have gotten to know Lee from the park and bird feeders. Without exception she touches deeply those she contacts. For those of us who have gotten a chance to spend time with her, we are given a priceless gift and experience

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *