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German director Pia Hellenthal. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today
Pia Hellenthal, a German-based writer and director, is in Helsinki to present her latest documentary, Searching Eva, at HIFF Love and Anarchy. The titular subject of the film is a Berlin-based sex worker/blogger whose identity seems to elude categorization, but Hellenthal also deals with the way audiences perceive her, and by extension, how we as human beings understand others through discrete categories.
Hellenthal is an engaging talker, and she spoke about the ideas informing her film with expressive hand gestures and by using table objects to visualize her points. Before I knew it, our time was up, and we both had to dash to a screening.
So, how did you find the subject of your documentary?
It was Georgia, the co-author who wrote the film with me, who found Eva. They had some common friends on Facebook because they are both from the Italian countryside. She found this blog and started to read it, and at some point came over to me and said, “Pia, this is really interesting, you should read it.” And I started reading her blog and got very hooked, couldn’t stop reading it, and I followed it back for years, because she started when she was 14. I just read all the things I could understand because it was partially in Italian, and the rest was in English.
And I just felt like there’s something that she described that I felt was in the air, but I couldn’t put my finger on it, or I couldn’t put it into words, and somehow she managed to capture it on the blog. Some vibe that was happening that I felt was in the air of our time; a timely feeling, a zeitgeist, you know? So I started to be really intrigued, but at that point Georgia and I didn’t know what to do with her, we only knew that she was interesting.
Then we met her a couple of times in Berlin in different apartments, and she looked very different each time. The first time she looked like an angel, with long hair and dressed in white, the second time she had big braids and hip-hop clothes, and the third time she was a different girl again. And she was always without a filter talking to us about everything, and without any judgment telling us about things that we would consider very private, but as openly as if she were talking about her breakfast.
That was the hard part for us to wrap our brains around, because you couldn’t place her, you couldn’t define her. Because she was so openly everything, and she wouldn’t define herself, so you were kind of left alone with your own perception. So when we look at her, we see a reflection of ourselves somehow. Because she doesn’t define herself, you have to do it for her, and you can only do it with your own brain structure. And that means you’re very alone, you’re thrown back on yourself. And at that point, we started to think, okay, this could be something quite interesting. Not as a portrait of her, but as her being like a mirror to you, the viewer.
In what way would you say that she captures this zeitgeist?
In many different ways. Mainly in this sense I just mentioned of not wanting to define herself as anything, diminishing the borders between what is a man, what is a woman, what is socially acceptable and what is not. To be able to define anything, it needs a border, otherwise it’s not a definition. And she kind of blurs all these lines. This is, I think, a very timely issue. I think this is happening right now, and with it, the contrary side of holding the borders very strictly, like you see in different countries with nationalism going up. The two sides are happening at the same time: one is about opening all borders and the other is about closing borders, and I’m talking about metaphysical borders as much as geographical ones.
Another thing I thought was interesting was her complete acceptance of contraries. For example, she says she’s an anarchist but she writes a blog with her iPhone; she’s a feminist but also a sex worker. It’s all of these things that are confusing when put next to each other, because they don’t form a straight line, but to me it’s very honest because that’s just the way we are—we’re very contradictory.
I go to a lot of film festivals these days and there’s a lot of films about the environment, but everybody flies to these events, and it’s super contradictory. And then they get the prize because they’re saving the world. It just doesn’t make sense, and it’s a very contradicting world we’re living in. To me, that was also something she just accepted.
How do you approach your subject? Do you try to tell the story neutrally, critically assess it, or do you try to sympathize with your subject?
In this movie, my subject was more the audience than Eva herself. Because it’s not really a story about Eva; it’s not like you see a development in the end, or get closer to her—it’s not like you know her at the end of the movie. She stays at arm’s length the whole time.
If you want to make a movie about the loss or abolishment of identity, and by the end of the movie you could define her, it doesn’t work. You have to keep her blurry.
So the only red line going through the movie are the questions of her followers, and they make more of a development than Eva. And this is more linked to the viewer’s perspective of her. You kind of have a gaze on her that changes throughout the film. In the beginning, when you look at her, you feel like she sometimes looks back at you, but this relationship changes. I think this was our main focus, to use her as a mirror.
These online comments are precisely why I ask this. Because I got the sense that maybe Eva is presented at a distance, as you say, but there seems to be a critique of the audience present there when you show all those comments from her blog.
Yeah, I think it’s both. You know, there’s two sides of the followers: the ones that are whispering, who can kind of relate to her, and the ones in writing. To me, if there’s a critique—and I wouldn’t say critique, more of a questioning of your gaze upon her, what you make of her. That’s the subject of the film, that you give her an identity through your own identity.
But doesn’t she define herself at one point in the film, using a whole list of categories she relates to?
Yeah, but I think you also somehow diminish them throughout the film. At the end of the film, yes, you have these definitions, but they don’t really seem valid anymore. Of course, before you can deconstruct, you kind of need to construct something that will be destroyed again. So it’s a little bit of a game that you play.
Do you think Eva’s openness about her life on social media, where she is exposed to the harsh judgment that you show in the film, is a positive thing or not?
I think she should do whatever she wants to do. She doesn’t do it anymore. She says she’s had enough exposure with the film and is kind of tired of it, she grew out of it, she said. But for her- you have to understand that she’s also a poet. She’s always been writing, so for her it’s always been a matter of making sense of what you see and what you live through. It’s not like she’s just talking about herself, she’s also describing what she sees. I don’t have any moral judgment on it. It helped her to reflect, and it’s a big, big, big, big reflection she did on her life, on contemporary life. That was what I found there.
And more broadly, what I think is happening is that the younger generation are a reflection upon the world and how it’s been the last few years. And they are taking the values, and opening them, thinking, “hmmm, I’m not sure if I like this value, and it hasn’t been working well; I think we can just get rid of it and start from scratch.” Because these stories that we believe in, like money, for example—they’re not really sure if they want to stick with it. That’s what I feel is in the air; a really big questioning of old values, old stories that you don’t really need to believe in. So getting everything out quite openly, quite honestly, without moral judgment, is a start.
‘Searching Eva’ screens at HIFF Love and Anarchy on September 27 and 29.