Pia Hellenthal’s debut documentary feature SEARCHING EVA (Germany, 2019) screened at the inaugural Fragments Festival at Genesis Cinema. The film was introduced by event programmer Christina Papasotiriou and followed by a Q&A with Eva Collé. Here’s our writeup.
By RADIANT CIRCUS
SEARCHING EVA is a fascinating collab between two compelling storytellers. One is onscreen, Eva Collé, the eponymous subject of the film, and the other one offscreen, Pia Hellenthal, its director. This “big Instagram story that then turned into a movie” blends their storytelling techniques. Unfolding like a scrolling timeline, we see Eva’s shifting persona, her various efforts to avoid work and profession, and the online community that accreted like a coral reef around blog posts she started writing when she was 15. Throughout we see and hear soundings from that reef, with onscreen text and whispered voiceover reflecting the bonding and bullying of the blogosphere.
Model, sex worker, drug-addict, occasional pet owner and inveterate home-mover – complete with that universal symbol of migratory lives, the blue IKEA bag – Eva is at the heart of this film but makes it very clear in the fascinating Q&A that it was entirely the creative work of another: “I don’t believe identity is this fixed and monolithic concept, so I wasn’t afraid of them putting out an image of myself that was crystallised and just stuck there forever. I just let them do their thing.”
There are no fixed identities in this film and it constantly plays with appearances. One sequence sees Eva wearing and talking about wigs in front of a framed film poster of AMÉLIE to whom she bears an uncanny resemblance. This notion of layered, Russian doll identity also raises some uncomfortable issues about the commodification of her image to fuel the sex work on which she depends. Rather than a conventional narrative, we experience a series of “curated” episodes filmed sporadically over a five year period. Always visually beautiful, Hellenthal’s doc combines what might be scenes from Eva’s real life, with the digital deluge and posed portraits that resemble the full-frontal youth photography of Rineke Dijkstra.
In seeking to resolve the stories into some semblance of shape, towards the end there’s a montage of different women accompanied by whispered readings from more posts. Unlike the earlier barrage of darkness, they talk about how Eva has had a positive impact upon their lives, helping them find their ambitions, orientations and dreams. But we cannot know who anyone really is and whether any of this is “true”. Indeed, all the credits – from the crew to the cast – are allocated to “as…” roles: be that “… as naked boy in bed” or “… as dramaturg”. After all, life is just performance.
The complex play of authenticity, artifice and influence inherent within her blogging community is acknowledged by Eva and it goes back to the origins of her online writing: “I didn’t really have any girlfriends in my life…. I always hung out with boys and I felt like a boy… then I found all of these girls online… the blog community was the only place that I new other girls that were similar to me…” Search Eva Collé on Tumblr today and it reveals the dark side of such community connections. “Iconised as the leading figure of the authentic” (IMDb), Eva is also credited by blogger dietthinspiration as “My ultimate thinspo”.
Appearing in the film has clearly transformed the way Eva tells her story: “I already feel so exposed with this whole thing that I don’t feel the need to expose any more.” As a new – and maybe temporary – career in film unfolds and Eva has “real” money in her pockets, the world now has multiple seamless branching versions of her story. Tumblr’s radically regressive rewriting of their community rules is simply part of another blue-bag migration and the start of another branch.
Eva is aware of her relative privilege too. White. Skinny. Attractive. She was where many girls and women reading her blog wanted to be (despite or maybe because of her standing as an “out” Italian sex worker). But such influences are always questionable and there’s a propensity to think that this constant reframing is something modern, amplified through social (over…) sharing. As Eva explains: “Identity is anyway constructed… every time you try to portray something you are constructing something… there’s no such thing as a real depiction of anything”. In doing so she asserts an important personal freedom, from being a role model, influencer or activist: “the problem with identity politics was that it was a movement that turned identity into an end goal instead of a means for struggle.”
The final sequence, in which Eva lights a sparkler and stares into the camera whilst fireworks explode beyond the rooftops, both celebrates that struggle and suggests the artifice of carnival, a chaotic community where the poetic and the perverse have always tumbled together. What remains radical in Eva’s rejection of a resolved identity and in Hellenthal’s film is the very issue of gender. You may desperately want Eva to stand for something, but she refuses, denying status as authority figure by reminding us that “we’re all in this bullshit together”. SEARCHING EVA may culminate in inconclusive spectacle, but a powerful and unruly genie has been unbottled.
All quotes are taken from Eva Collé in conversation with event programmer Christina Papasotiriou and the audience at Genesis Cinema (11 JUN 2019).
Fragments Festival screens at Genesis Cinema (93 – 95 Mile End Road, E1) from 07 to 15 JUN 2019. Prices range from £5.50 senior/family tickets, to £8 students and £9 adults. Gala screenings cost £15. If you’re a Genesis monthly member, you’ll fit right in. Check the venue for accessibility requirements.
Genesis Cinema is a family-owned venue on Mile End Road that offers incredible variety and value-for money (the blankets provided in their epic – and therefore hard to heat – main screen are also a welcome part of their charm). Not content with offering home to such varied exhibitors as Fringe! Queer Film & Arts Fest, Filikino, Birds’ Eye View, Rochester Kino/Cult Classic Collective, CineSisters and many others, they also screen regular free events in their Bar Paragon which make this a great venue for lovers of screen-culture in all its forms.
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