CUFF

BEGGING NAKED Karen Gehres Documentary Video 70:00 2007 Chicago Premiere

“I don’t want to be reduced to begging naked.” – Elise Hill

Elise Hill left her suburban New Jersey home in 1976 at the age of 15, leaving behind a mentally and physically abusive home. As Elise crossed the George Washington Bridge that night, she turned a trick for $30 since she left with little warning and had only a few dollars in her pocket. She had no plan, but knew she wanted to make it to Union Square—then known as Needle Park. It was in Union Square where Elise met her first pimp. Elise quickly became a prostitute and was on her way to becoming a heroin addict.

About four years later, Elise left the world of prostitution and drugs and entered a rehab program in New Jersey. While in rehab, she enrolled in classes at the Art Student’s League, fulfilling a dream to study art. Elise taught herself how to work in various media, including jewelry-making, doll-making, painting, and sculpture. For nearly 15 years, she supported herself by selling her art, using her small studio near Carnegie Hall—a converted airshaft—as a live/work space.

As the stress of being a street vendor began to compound, and attempts to find grants failed, Elise returned to the sex industry as a stripper in 1994. The idea of a steady income appealed to Elise. She continued to paint while stripping, creating rich and graphic images drawn from the stage of the club. She often used fellow dancers and customers as subjects. In late 1995, Elise suggested to Karen, who was an intern at the not-for-profit Film/Video Arts (FVA), that she tape her as she tells her story. Elise wanted to speak of her journey, but did not think she would ever get around to writing an autobiography. Karen had access to free video equipment at FVA, and thought it was a great way to tell Elise’s story while learning filmmaking. In late 1995 the first portions of BEGGING NAKED were shot.

By late 1996, then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s zoning laws were killing the sex industry in New York City. Strip clubs were shuttered as the “Disneyfication” of Times Square began. With only a couple of venues remaining, the wages of strippers plummeted, leaving many destitute.

BEGGING NAKED follows Elise as she struggles to determine her next step beyond the sex industry. As external events pressure Elise, we witness her mental and physical disintegration.

By 1999, Elise is dropping acid on a regular basis, and signs of mental illness emerge. 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 twenty years. The most recent footage, shot in fall 2004, brings us to Central Park where Elise lives with her companion and her cat Puck. At the age of 41, she still creates art, making baskets out of telephone wire and clothing from donated materials.