Searching Eva: Identity and sex work in the online age

Searching Eva: Identity and sex work in the online age

How to live digitally — Eva Collé is a writer, blogger, model, Instagrammer, sex worker – and now the subject of a documentary. We speak with the film’s director Pia Hellenthal and Eva herself about what it’s like to perpetually chronicle your life online.

On the fourth floor balcony where press interviews take place at the Berlin Film Festival, Eva Collé is taking a selfie.

For the Italian twenty-something model, prolific Instagrammer, writer, blogger, sex worker and now subject of a documentary feature, self-chronicling is routine – not unlike the regular administration of a prescription. And it seems to run in the family: while Eva is taking photos, her mother snaps away in conjunction. Our interview is punctuated with the clicks of a lens shutter.

Searching Eva is different form of documentation. The film, directed by Pia Hellenthal, is non-linear and without a particular narrative. Rather, it is a portrait of Eva; a snapshot without context. We see Eva and we hear her – she is the film’s voiceover, reciting writing lifted from her Tumblr – but Hellenthal is more interested in exploring the digital world Eva embodies and inhabits than a biographical tale. It a case of exploring what it means to be a young person online, and how that subsequently informs one’s identity. 

“There was a long process where we asked, how do we show the internet in the film,” explains Hellenthal. “How do we translate the feeling of the internet rather than show it visually?”

In the film, Eva is the representation of how the internet feels, largely due to her ability to shapeshift and mutate while remaining logged in and accessible. Throughout Searching Eva, we see different versions of the titular character – the model, the sex worker, the writer, the daughter – signified by a rotating wardrobe of clothes and hairstyles. Today, on a grey Berlin afternoon, her sharp face is framed by a heavy black fringe.

As Eva puts her phone away, she and Hellenthal sit down to discuss the making of the film, finding your tribe on 2000s Tumblr, and how we can unlock the internet’s utopian potential.

How did the two of you meet and why did you want to collaborate?
Pia Hellenthal: Giorgia Malatrasi, the co-author and producer of Searching Eva, found Eva online. One day she sent [a link to her Tumblr] to me and I started to read it – I was really intrigued by Eva’s openness and honesty. It captured the zeitgeist that I wasn’t able to put my finger on and wasn’t able to put it into words.

It wasn’t supposed to be a film at the beginning. First it was just an interest in Eva and in 2014 we met her. Eva sat in front of us and told us everything about her life. People usually keep stuff to themselves or there’s a filter – like this belongs to the outside world and this belongs to me – but with Eva it was like, “Here, you have it all, do whatever you want with it.”

Eva Collé: When we met, they were looking at me surprised and I just kept talking. I guess I needed to do that. After they left I was like, ‘That was so embarrassing.’ I thought they would think, ‘This bitch is crazy!’ But they were actually into it and decided to make a movie.

PH: It started with just an interest in Eva as a person and then developed the more we read her blog. The more we talked about it, the more we understood that Eva is like a projection wall for us. With all of her openness and all of her honesty, it’s hard to define or narrow down what she’s about – because she’s about everything and nothing. So it was like she was throwing us back on ourselves. We were confronted with how we were trying to define someone, which always ends up with moralistic approaches or conventional definitions. In the end, the movie we wanted to do was really about that, rather than Eva’s personal life story.

Eva, did you have any reservations about the film?
EC: No, not at all. I was totally fine with it. I was [sharing] the same thing on my blog. They were taking things from there, so I’d already made the decision to put it out there.

When did you first start to document your life online?
EC: I started when I was 15 and got the internet at home. I was on it all the time. I knew about the existence of blogs, but then I actually came across them and started reading them. It was, like, all girls – and I think I needed that, because there were no girls in my life. I was always around boys and didn’t feel like I was a girl myself. It was important for me to find other people who also felt like that.

Pia, how did you approach filming Eva?
PH: Many things [in the script] are just taken from Eva’s blog because we could read every day what she was up to because she writes almost everyday. We mixed things that were happening naturally in her life with thoughts that she had published. Scenes revolve around that and squeeze out of the film. But yeah, it’s all real. It’s all Eva’s life.

In the film, we see hints of your background, Eva – that you grew up in a conservative small-town in Italy. You talk openly about the sexism you experienced. How did that impact you?
EC: I grew up in such a close-minded environment. I wanted to break free from that and that’s why I never let anyone define me based on preconceptions. So yeah, it did have a major impact. I’m not living there anymore but you know it’s like that everywhere. I guess it’s more intense when the village is small.

It took me a long time, for example, to figure out my sexuality. I wouldn’t allow myself to date girls because I was living up to this idea of what a good writer is. If I had shown myself for what I was, I would have lost credit in the literature environment. It was mostly men and I wanted to be like the other men. I didn’t feel like a woman. I think that had a lot to do with misogyny and the self-hatred the patriarchy creates in every woman.

You explore both positive and negative sides of social media in the film. How much of an impact do you think social media is having on how we live our lives – do you think we’re becoming more performative?
EC: Probably yes. It allows you to more easily present a version of yourself that you want to show other people. In a sense it is performative but, at the same time, you’re always performing even when you’re not on social media.

PH: But [social media] also has potential. There’s potential to share experiences outside of the people you live with. When I came across Eva’s blog, I felt big. There were girls all over the world sharing their experiences because Eva wrote something about sexual harassment from a fashion photographer. For me that was big – like, there’s something evolving out of that, and this was way before #MeToo. There’s a potential for connecting experiences and giving a voice to people who are marginalised in real life.

Do you think then the internet has the possibility to be a utopian, or feminist, space?
PH: For sure there’s the potential. But at the same time, it’s being commercialised and capitalised like everything else. There is the potential for this utopia, but it can also be the exact opposite. [The internet] is just a representation of real life, it’s just more extreme in any sense.

Follow Katie Goh on Twitter.

Enjoyed this article? Like Huck on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.