Elise Hill is a forty-something homeless woman living in New York City’s Central Park since 2001. Karen Gehres documentary follows Hill over a 9-year period and shows an honest portrait of a woman’s life that could have turned out differently.
Hill was a teenage runner-way from an upper class New Jersey home. Her move in to prostitution was immediate and heroin addiction soon followed. As the first of many testaments to Hill’s own strength, she kicked heroine and became an accomplished painter, sculptor, and jewelry maker while still working as a stripper. Many of her paintings portrayed her fellow strippers on stage and provide a unique lens in to the world of NYC performers. Her home and art space for 20 years was a converted maids’ quarters above an elevator shaft on the roof of an upscale Midtown Manhattan building. Hill’s slide into paranoia and mental illness forces her eviction after continuous non-payment of rent. We see her gathering her belongings and her cat, then spending her first terrifying night on the street.
Hill remains optimistic for the camera as she shares her secrets of keeping warm in a coffee shop and receiving hot food from the church. She articulates her lot in life as something to be thankful for, as it could be a lot worse. I could barely watch the end credits, half expecting her return to drugs, prostitution, or worse –her death. Instead Gehres tells us that Hill’s art has been salvaged and is kept in a lock-up but after 5 years, Hill still lives on the streets. It’s ironic that her art has found a home.
Begging Naked is a powerful and unforgettable portrait of mental illness and of a woman who has endured everything.
Begging Naked will be screening at the International Women’s Festival in Creteil 31st edition in France from March 13-22.