'Begging Naked' paints a real-life story on big screen
CHAMPAIGN – Neophyte filmmaker Karen Gehres thought it was a joke when she saw "from Roger Ebert" in her e-mail in box last July.
It wasn't a prank, though.
The critic was inviting the New Yorker to show her documentary, "Begging Naked," at his 11th annual film festival, which runs today through Sunday at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign.
"I knew about his festival and knew you could not submit films to his festival," she said. "I couldn't believe he got the film and actually watched it and liked it."
The documentary, which has not yet been picked up for theatrical distribution, will be shown at 1:30 p.m. Friday; the screening is sponsored by the Champaign County Anti-Stigma Alliance, which battles the stigma attached to mental illness.
Ebert has said he expects "Begging Naked" to be "one of the real discoveries" of this year's Ebertfest.
A true New York story, the documentary is about artist Elise Hill, now 46, homeless and living in Central Park. She had run away from home to the city when she was 15, eventually began stripping to make a living, and then descended into paranoid schizophrenia and homelessness.
Gehres met Hill in 1989 after the latter walked into a paint store where Gehres worked. They hit it off, became friends and Hill eventually suggested that Gehres tell her life story.
A painter with a degree from Parsons The New School of Design, Gehres had always wanted to make films. After landing an internship at Film/Video Arts, a nonprofit New York film school and media arts training program, she began checking out its equipment, using various formats of cameras to film Hill.
Gehres began shooting in late 1995, not knowing where the story would go. At the time, Hill was living in converted maid quarters above an elevator shaft in a building a block from Carnegie Hall. She rented the space from an old friend. Hill eventually quit paying rent, believing her landlord/friend was not who he was. He began eviction proceedings; Gehres accompanied Hill to housing court several times, begging the judge on her behalf.
"I was there for everything except the very day she was evicted," Gehres said.
That day she happened to be on an airport runway, waiting to take off for Atlanta, where she had a freelance job. Hill called, and Gehres contacted her then-boyfriend.
"He said, 'I'm going to go up there and see what's going on and I'm going to bring the camera,'" Gehres related. "That's how that eviction footage was shot. It's weird. I don't know how I would have reacted when it was going to happen. I don't know if I could have shot it."
Gehres shot only a little footage at the 42nd Street strip club where Hill worked before then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani closed the adult venues there in an effort to clean up that part of Manhattan.
As part of her strip act, Hill would paint club scenes. Her colorful paintings are so graphic and revealing that Gehres felt no need to shoot a lot of film inside the club.
Gehres spent nine years making "Begging Naked." She continues to see Hill, who has eliminated nearly everyone else from her past. Recently Hill's condition seems to have improved.
However, Hill has refused invitations to attend festival screenings of "Begging Naked" – though she paused to consider Ebertfest. Her paranoia prevented her from traveling here, though.
Gehres plans to bring to Ebertfest some of Hill's artwork and dolls to sell, as the filmmaker does in New York. She gives all the proceeds to Hill.
The sale of Hill's work led in a roundabout way to Ebert's discovery of "Begging Naked."
Jeff Leff, a food critic who has the chowhound.chow.com Web site, had seen Hill's paintings in Queens while looking to buy a Milton Avery painting.
Leff asked about Hill's work and was told about the artist and Gehres' documentary. Leff, who loves movies, contacted Gehres to ask for a DVD. After watching it, he sent it on to Ebert.
The first film festival to accept "Begging Naked" was the Nantucket Film Festival in 2007. Because of the film's subject matter, organizers at first had put the documentary in the reject pile, where it was spotted by someone who had seen it. He told the festival to reconsider "Begging Naked," which had been rejected by other festivals as well.
"Begging Naked" turned out to be so popular at Nantucket that the festival added two additional screenings. All three sold out.
"People who saw it there would stop me on the street and I really needed that because I was still feeling beat down, totally," Gehres said.
She is now writing a screenplay loosely based on her father's childhood.
The Syracuse native also continues to work as a freelance field producer, helping to shoot the extras on DVDs.