On Friday, June 21, at the 2019 AFI DOCS, I interviewed writer/director Pia Hellenthal and writer/producer Giorgia Malatrasi to discuss their collaboration on the new experimental documentary Searching Eva, directly following the post-screening Q&A. The film follows twentysomething Eva Collé (not her original name), an Italian woman living in Germany who, among other things, makes a living through sex work. A feminist intellectual with an active social-media following, Collé makes an engaging subject, photographed in beautiful compositions that both lend an illusion of raw intimacy and create a barrier of cinematic artifice to simultaneously draw in and distance the viewer from the construct that is Eva. Here is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, with additional occasional (very) mild rewording to make Zhang’s phrases more idiomatically American.
Christopher Llewellyn Reed: So, here’s an obvious first question, but how did you pick Eva Collé as your subject? I believe it was you, Giorgia, who first found her.
Giorgia Malatrasi: Yes. So, I was researching, and she added me on Facebook. I saw this girl that was an Italian ex-pat in Berlin, like me, and she looked very interesting, first of all, visually. And then I researched a bit more on her and found her blog on Tumblr, and that’s when I really got obsessed by her and her brain, I would say, and her lifestyle, and her honesty, and her shamelessness. And then I, at some point, shared it with Pia to see if she shared this obsession with me, or any kind of interest. I needed some feedback, I needed to see if someone else was feeling the way I felt, and I trusted her on this. And so I shared it with her. And then she came back to me after, I think a week or so, and said, “Yes I’m in. Let’s do something.”
CLR: So let’s take a step back for a sec. You said you were researching?
CLR: Did you have in mind a particular kind of subject or were you just throwing stuff out to see …
GM: No, not really, actually, but definitely interested in young women, and this one particular young woman looked quite, to me, modern, very contemporary. I felt that she represented a generation that was still a bit obscure to me. I am a bit older than her and I wanted to … I was really curious to see the way that she actually lived, and to see if what she was talking about was real or not, and then that just became a trap, somehow.
CLR: Got it. So Pia, Giorgia sends this person to you. When did you know that yes, this was someone that you wanted to make a film about?
Pia Hellenthal: Well, I think we didn’t know for a very long time what we wanted to do with her. And even though I got hooked very easily on her blog – and within a week, I read a lot, and we met her together and took the camera – even at that point we weren’t sure if we wanted to make a film about her. We were just, “OK, she’s interesting. Maybe something happens with her.” And then we met her two or three times, and I think it took us about a year, meeting her. I mean we were both working at the time and weren’t wholly focusing on only that. So, it took us about a year to understand that there could be a film made out of this that wouldn’t just follow her in her everyday life, but could be something more than that. And I think it was somehow coming across in our discussions about it when we realized, “OK, we’re talking a lot about ourselves when we talk about Eva and we’re projecting a lot on her.”
And this happens because Eva’s very transparent, she shows everything. But at the same time you feel like she’s completely disappearing, so you’re trying to make sense of her and that leaves you very alone with yourself, somehow. And so Giorgia and I were talking about her, but in the end, we were discussing our own selves, like about our bodies, the way we feel about ourselves as women, the way we feel about identity in general, the way we feel about how much it’s constructed. I think the fact that it’s about identity was very clear to us from the beginning, but we didn’t know how to put a finger on it, you know? At some point we understood how we could do it and then we realized we could do a film. I don’t remember exactly when, but…
CLR: In the Q&A, you talked about her being a projection and I do think that your film’s exploration of identity, both in terms of gender and otherwise, is very powerful. And since she’s a sex worker, she has that additional layer of performance and presentation of self that may not be her genuine self because her life is about creating an illusion for others. Just to be clear, sex work is completely legal in Germany, is that correct?
PH: Yes. Sex work is legal in Germany.
CLR: And then I’m not sure about other parts of Europe, but in Italy, where you’re from, Giorgia, it’s not?
GM: Definitely not. Italy is a Pope-led country and we can’t even…
CLR: True, but I’m half French and France is also a Catholic country, but they’ve had, back and forth over time, varying relationships towards prostitution, that I know of, anyway.
GM: No, the Pope is really sitting on our capital city and we can’t, really. No, it’s terrible. There is a lot of stigma, and there’s a lot of hypocrisy because prostitutes are there, everywhere.
CLR: Sure. Of course.
GM: Of course. It’s just a matter of including them in society and giving them, you know, protecting them, and letting them pay taxes, and all that, as everyone else. And accepting the fact that working with your body doesn’t mean that you are dirty, and nasty, and despicable, or you’re, you know, insulting God or something like that.
CLR: So, one of my favorite aspects of your film is its formally innovative style. How did you decide on those sort of “tableaux vivants,” those living tableaux where you stage an encounter with your subject, sometimes with other people in the background, sometimes very strikingly with the fireworks in the background. I really love those moments with Eva. So how did you come up with that aesthetic?
PH: Well, I think it somehow evolved from what we saw from Eva, because we were constantly reading her blog and there you see some mini-stories, like one day she posts like a mini-story of what she did that day and she posts a picture with her friends next to it, and then she posts a song next to it. So there’s a very fragmented way of looking at a person which is the internet or how we perceive people through the internet. And so we kind of knew that the film was going to be fragmented. It’s never going to be fluid like a continuous storyline, you know? We were just not sure on which ground this fragmentation would take place.
And I think there were a lot of different factors that eventually helped us decide this. I think one was that we knew Eva was going to be an object somehow that you’re looking at in the beginning, and then she was a subject by the end of the film. Another one was that it was about identity and that we wanted to, in a subtle way, explain how our identities are constructed. And you feel, throughout the film, like there are different pillars that this identity is grounded in, which are, for example, religion, capitalism, patriarchy, but we don’t name them like that. But we have different people that kind of bring these topics across and then Eva picks them up in her voiceover and her blog entries, and then followers ask certain questions. You kind of revolve around these topics and it’s the stage on which Eva’s story takes place.
CLR: And I’m assuming you also worked with your cinematographer …
PH: Janis Mazuch, he’s a great one.
CLR: Yes, he did beautiful work on this film.
PH: Yeah, he’s great. I don’t know. I think part of it is very much my personal style, just to be honest. I have always liked static shots. I have a complete tendency towards some symmetry, so I think it’s that obsession, as well. Then it’s Eva, as well, because as soon as you put a camera on a tripod in a room, we would grab her and say, “Look at it. Where would you place yourself now in the picture?” And she always found the perfect spot. It just came out of the gut, to some degree. And for other things it required some really hard thinking like, “OK, how do we put her followers into the story?” You know, “How do we put her voiceover?” And I wasn’t sure for a very long time how to arrange these different elements. And this really, I think, came together in the edit in the end. That was a lot of work from Yana Höhnerbach, who’s a great editor.
CLR: And all those text questions come from her followers on her Tumblr blog?
CLR: Some of them are quite outrageous, the questions. So it seems like she has a group of followers who are both antagonistic and supportive.
PH: But that’s the real world as well, you know? I mean, I think if you put yourself out there as Eva does, you always get, especially as a woman, this feedback, you know? You’re constantly surrounded by judgment. And I think that online it’s just easier to say that stuff out loud.
CLR: Sure. This is our 21st century, yeah. So there is a lot of very explicit footage in the film and I was really amazed that you negotiated access to an actual encounter with a client. Were there any things that you were not allowed to film, or just decided not to? She seems to have given you quite full access to her life.
PH: I mean, Eva was always quite complicit, you know? It’s like when you shoot with Eva, people around her feel quite natural quite quickly, especially if we also put the camera on a tripod and we can disappear, kind of like lounging on the couch next to it and just letting the camera roll for a very long time. But for the trick, for example, that was an actor.
CLR: Oh, OK! (laughs) Spoil the secret of your film! Yeah. You did talk in the Q&A about riding the line between fiction and documentary, but you know, in all fairness to you, plenty of documentarians stage reenactments and recreations, so…
GM: Sure. Even if you have real people, you can’t avoid changing reality because the camera is there. So at that point, you know, defining a line, it’s very arbitrary, I think, so, yeah. With the sugar daddy it was an attempt, we were trying to see how that would work, and then we decided to keep it that way. But apart from him, I think everyone else was just seeing Eva so comfortable they would just relax, and we were really trying to not intervene.
PH: Yeah. I also don’t feel like I could have, I mean I wouldn’t have minded staging more of this really because it’s, it’s so much about that, in the end: the construction/deconstruction of identity. What do we show of ourselves to other people? We show a bunch of masks. I don’t feel like it needs to be all real for this documentary to be ethically correct or anything. I don’t believe in that. I feel like that’s more like a more boring approach than thinking about… I mean it’s more about the effect that it has, you know?
I think it’s nice that people are confused if it’s real or not. It’s good. It’s actually way better. If it wouldn’t happen in the film, I think it wouldn’t work. You need to doubt, and you need to doubt yourself, because in the end if we’re actually saying identity is a construct, then we’re playing with fiction the whole time, you know? So it’s good that the film does it as well.
CLR: Well, I think that’s a wonderful place to end. It’s a perfect encapsulation of your film.