Begging Naked


Begging Naked

“Thanks for the film. Really devastating and well made. Congrats on a successful film.”
— - Martin Scorsese

No other film so vividly documents one woman's descent into the hell of mental illness and homelessness as Begging Naked.

What started as a quirky interview of a struggling artist turned into a heartbreaking odyssey spanning a decade as Karen Gehres documented her friend's disintegration.Fifteen-year-old runaway Elise Hill crossed the George Washington Bridge intoNew York City and walked into a world of addiction and prostitution. Miraculously, Elise turned her life around and fulfilled her life-long dreams to study art. She supported herself by working as a jewelry maker and artist for the next fifteen years.

As the stress of being a street vendor began to compound, Elise decided to return to the sex industry as a stripper in 1994.   Attempting to integrate dancing with her art, Elise brought her easel up on stage as part of her act and painted her fellow dancers and customers.

When Guiliani's Disneyfication of Times Square shut down the various midtown strip clubs, the wages of strippers plummeted, leaving many of them destitute.  After years outside the job market, Elise is unable to adapt in the working world.  Unable to pay her rent, her landlord begins eviction proceedings.  She attends court hearings staving off eviction for a time, but in July 2001 we witness her final eviction from her home of 20 years. 

From her first night sleeping on the sidewalk in front of St. Thomas' Church, Begging Naked documents Elise’s decline, her frightening conflict of identity and her day-to-day struggle for food and shelter. By Fall of 2003, we see Elise living in Central Park. At the age of 41, despite everything she is still creating art, weaving baskets out of telephone wire and assembling clothes from donated materials.

This is a story of survival and self-undoing. Against an unforgiving backdrop of homelessness and madness, Begging Naked shows the endurance of the human spirit at its most extreme.

“Fascinating observations about art, the sex industry and the road to homelessness....An amazing documentary about an extraordinary person.”
— -Roger Ebert, Film Critic



The best train set a boy could ever want By Roger Ebert on March 26, 2009

"Begging Naked." An extraordinary documentary that is still without distribution. Its director, Karen Gehres, became friends with Elise Hill while selling her art supplies in 1989. Hill told her story: A 15-year-old runaway who, just as in the cautionary tales, was picked up by a pimp soon after landing on 42nd Street, was a sex worker, and later a stripper at the infamous Show World while all the time producing a series of extraordinary paintings of the world she inhabited. There is a little of Toulouse-Lautrec about her, although her POV isn't from the audience. She actually set up her easel onstage. In 1996, while living in a crawl space, she asked Gehres to videotape her life story, and this film is the result of their decade-long collaboration. Karen Gehres will be present in person.

EBERTFEST | Critic again brings overlooked movies -- and their makers -- Downstate Mon, 27 Apr 2009 04:00BY LAURA EMERICK

CHAMPAIGN -- In the words of a milestone American musical, it's great to have Roger back where he belongs. That's at the center of his annual film festival, now called Ebertfest, which celebrates movies ignored, lost or not widely seen after their original release.

"Begging Naked," another orphaned title, chronicles the saga of Elise Hill, a former runaway who became a sex worker, stripper and then an artist who created paintings, sculptures and other works while living for two decades in a converted airshaft near Carnegie Hall and struggling with mental illness. After being evicted, Hill found herself homeless and camped out in Central Park. Despite her plight, Hill still manages to produce art; an exhibit of her works organized for Ebertfest quickly sold out after "Begging Naked" screened.

Karen Gehres, who began shooting "Begging Naked" in 1996, often with little support, said she couldn't believe that her film had been invited to Ebertfest. "When I got the e-mail from Roger, I was at my lowest. I had worked on this film for so long. To get that e-mail, it was a sign that I needed to show what I was doing is worthy."

Using a voice simulator on his laptop, Ebert reminded the crowd that "Begging Naked" reflects a common theme among his festival selections. "Like 'Trouble the Water' and 'Chop Shop,' it documents the human spirit," he said. "The film gives voice to Elise's story."

Movies that are made for forever By Roger Ebert on April 26, 2009

Look at the warmth generated by Karen Gehres and her documentary "Begging Naked." It is the portrait, filmed over 20 years, of a friend she made who has been a runaway, stripper, drug dealer, addict, and prostitute, and is currently living in Central Park. She is also a survivor, an involved artist and writer, and her analysis of the sex industry is clear-eyed and sane. She detoxed and stopped selling drugs "because I didn't want to hold people down." Her name is Elise Hill, and she is smart and articulate, despite mental illness. She painted other girls and their lusting audiences while she was actually onstage at Show World in the 42nd street adult district.

Her paintings were shown in the movie. They have been on display on Gehres' web site for at least six months. They were placed on sale across the street from the theater, and so well did the film present her life and art that every single one was sold. I noticed that my cousin Florence Ebert was attending the screening. Her age is her business, but she won't see 90 again. Ohmigod, I thought. A film about an addict and stripper. She told me she loved it. Of course. Florence was a nurse, a member of that noble profession. She's seen more of life than I have.


By Robert W. Welkos, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Her friend through thick and thin-

'Begging Naked' documentarian Karen Gehres began taping her pal Elise Hill for a video biography, she didn't know what troubles were ahead. Her name is Elise Hill. She is in her 40s and has been homeless since 2001. She spends her days in New York City's Central Park and her nights on the sidewalks.

A onetime heroin addict who worked as a stripper and prostitute, she is also an accomplished painter, sculptor and maker of costume jewelry who was evicted from the home she had known for two decades -- above an elevator shaft in a converted maids' quarters on the roof of an upscale building in Midtown Manhattan. The rooftop was her artist's loft. Her poignant story is captured in a feature-length documentary titled "Begging Naked," by director and writer Karen Gehres, who spent nine years chronicling Elise's story, beginning with her friend's love of painting, to her work in a brothel catering to well-heeled clients, including members of the United Nations, to her gradual descent into paranoia and mental illness. "It's been horrible; it's been horrendous," Gehres said in a recent phone call from New York, reflecting on the emotional toll a decade of filming Elise has taken on her. Many times, Gehres said, she wanted to stop. But "I didn't know how it was going to end," she explained. "Every time I thought it was over, it wasn't over." When she proposed finding a place for Elise to stay, she was met with resistance.

"She has all these conditions on everything, or paranoia about going anywhere," Gehres said. "If I had money to put her in a place where she didn't have to pay rent, I would love to do that. That's a goal. Just get her out of there." But Elise would claim "either the mob is after her, or the CIA is after her." The documentary will be shown Sunday night at the ArcLight in Hollywood as part of the 11th annual Hollywood Film Festival. Carlos de Abreu, the festival's founder and executive director, said "Begging Naked" is part of this year's festival theme of "giving voice to the voiceless." Gehres said that every place "Begging" screens, people ask if they can purchase Elise Hill's arresting artwork. The director said she has put her friend's paintings into storage, selling only a few pieces to provide Elise with enough cash to live on. "She doesn't trust banks," said Gehres, adding that she is reluctant to sell many more paintings, believing that in time the art world will discover Elise's talent and the prices could soar, allowing her friend to get off the streets forever. A freelance field producer, Gehres met Elise in 1989. Both were painters, and Gehres was working in an art supply shop. "Elise walked into the store where I was working. We just started talking. We just clicked. She was bright and funny and talented. But she decided to go back to stripping, and I was really upset."

Gehres didn't start shooting her film until 1996. She was taking video arts classes at the time and had access to a camera. Elise told her, "Come on up and practice on me. I'll never write my autobiography, but we can at least get it on tape." Elise was living a block from Carnegie Hall inside an apartment building. "Basically, she lived on the roof above the elevator shaft," Gehres said. "It was very long and narrow. It kind of felt like a boat. She carved out these little round windows herself because there were no windows. She lived there 20 years."

Elise came from an upper-middle-class family in New Jersey. Why she left home is a bit unclear, but Elise talks on film about a fight she had with her dad. "She landed in New York -- literally walked over the George Washington Bridge, walked downtown to Union Square Park, which had the nickname 'Needle Park' back then," Gehres said. "It was filled with pimps and heroin pushers. She was young, just a teenager. She met a guy and got hooked on heroin." Gehres said Elise went into rehab and weaned herself off heroin, but she kept working the streets. Her descent into mental illness occurred gradually. "She said the only time that she was ever medicated for anything was when she was in rehab," Gehres recalled. "That is when she was 17 or 18 years old. When the paranoia kicked in full force, she stopped paying rent. The guy she was renting that place from -- that little shaft -- had had enough." One of the most painful scenes is the day of Elise's eviction, when she wraps herself with layers of clothing, puts her cat into a carrier and struggles with her belongings on the sidewalk.

Elise can be found most days at Central Park's boathouse. Despite Elise's plight, Gehres is hopeful for her friend's future. "Knowing Elise, anything could happen."



Ebertfest 2009: Day Three Posted in Film by Hank Sartin on April 25th, 2009

Finally, the first film of the day: a doc without distribution that Roger Ebert got unsolicited from a reader (not from the director of the film, by the way) called Begging Naked. Roger watched the DVD and immediately contacted director Karen Gehres. The film is a portrait of Gehres’s friend Elise Hill, an artist who has also worked in the sex industry, both as an exotic dancer and as a prostitute. Over the course of nine years, Gehres kept filming her friend in interviews and in daily life. And in those nine years, Hill became homeless and descended into untreated mental illness, imaging that the KGB and/or the CIA was tracking her movements. It’s an unflinching look at how people on the margins can slide from precarious stability to desperation, a topic that recurs in the fest with Trouble the Water and Frozen River. It’s a powerful doc and raises questions about the responsibilities of filmmakers to their subjects. Only in the Q&A with Gehres did it become clear how much Gehres has been engaged in Hill’s life, going to eviction hearings with her, paying to store Hill’s art when it was going to be thrown out by Hill’s former landlord, trying to get Hill to seek some psychiatric help or get out of Central Park and into a shelter. So, powerful stuff in the film and another powerful story around the film.