Documentaries, particularly those centred on public figures, have historically had a fragile relationship with the truth. The manifold complexities of someone’s life are hardly fit to be disassembled and spliced into a series of images, neatly packaged for consumption, after all. Yet this process has grown beyond cinema into the realm of social media, where turning the camera onto ourselves has become a pervasive creative obsession blending narcissism and self-reflexivity. It’s refreshing, then, that Searching Eva directly grapples with the inherent instability of representation in its intimate study of the internet personality, model, and sex worker formerly known as Eva Collé. That director Pia Hellenthal has provided her subject the opportunity to engage in a unique form of on-screen introspection is powerful in itself — but it’s an approach that yields limited insight.
Searching Eva closely tracks its internet star across different, looping time periods, seamlessly conveying the story of a disadvantaged youth during their early 20s, in which their identity and living spaces are constantly negotiated. It should be noted that following the film’s premiere, Eva has since transitioned and now identifies as a trans man by the name of Adam. Adam is funny and honest in an occasionally disarming manner, comfortable with quipping about his fractured relationship with his body (“most of the time I’d rather be eating bread than fucking”) or offhandedly remarking about his own experiences of labour and sexual exploitation (“I get more money for a blowjob than 3 days [sic] Paris fashion week”). If nothing else, the film provides a compassionate portrait of life on the margins. Social media is the only constant in his life, one of the few structures in which he can exert any semblance of agency. The film, akin to Adam’s Tumblr, can be confronting in its candor, disintegrating the boundaries between public and private — although as a VICE documentary, the flashes of (paid and unpaid) sex and drug use are generally par for the course.
Considering the subject matter, the documentary feels poised to probe the implications of splintering oneself into an online public figure during one’s formative years, while at the same time closely traversing the space between Adam’s ever-shifting public and private identities — though I’m not convinced it entirely succeeds in doing either. Most glaringly, the film fails to substantially contextualise its subject. For example, it’s never specified that Adam’s assorted musings via voice-over are carried over directly from his blog entries, effectively obfuscating Adam’s online persona and eliminating the potential for comparison between his filmic and online representations. Occasionally, the film will display comments and anonymous questions sent to Adam in minimalist white-on-black intertitles, which convey the unusually intimate and often abusive relationships he has with various followers. It’s frankly a shame that more of his blog isn’t featured in the film; even a cursory glance proves more revealing than the film’s excerpts, showcasing a diary splattered with philosophical shitposting, bitter diatribes, and vivid stories posted in short, punchy bursts.
The essence of the film lies within one of its featured blog comments: ‘you’re [sic] life is so cool and interesting it’s kind of like a indiemovie’. It’s an idea that Searching Eva directly engages with, ditching the restrained vérité so characteristic of documentaries in favour of a more deliberate, stylised look. While the posts on Adam’s Instagram are off-the-cuff imprints caked with digital noise, the film is populated by artfully composed shots, occasionally content to simply linger on the sunsets and landscapes which form the backdrop of his life. Elsewhere, the film is punctuated by a series of voice-overs accompanying boldly aestheticised, static snapshots of Adam insouciantly returning the audience’s gaze, sometimes in slow motion or dripping in cool neon light. One such shot (and perhaps the most memorable image of the film) positions a naked, post-coital Adam reclining at the forefront of the frame, while his client animatedly dresses in the background of the hotel room. The longer the shot holds, the more his unwavering gaze drills into us.
This distinct visual language frames the film as a work of formal autocritique, albeit a frustrating one. The snapshots described above, for example, confront yet invite intimacy, all the while highlighting the subjectivity of the text and its autobiographical foundation. Yet these images lack substance in and of themselves; it’s mere lampshading for the sake of lampshading with little to say about the actual act of self-creation and representation. Similarly, the visual embellishment of Adam’s life finds poignant grace-notes in his often underprivileged lifestyle, while also suggesting that the act of translating one’s life to the screen is inherently a work of fabrication, no matter how raw and gritty it appears. But these tensions are never fruitfully explored, nor does the film interrogate what it’s like for Adam to siphon the most private aspects of his life into the flimsy simulacrum of film and social media. With only a handful of conversations and monologues briefly discussing social media in extremely literal terms, the rest of the film fares little better.
Searching Eva will be playing on 22 February as part of the Hyperlinks festival.
Jamie Tram is a writer, filmmaker, and screwball obsessive from Melbourne, Australia. His writing lurks at Senses of Cinema, Kill Your Darlings, and other places. You can direct all your complaints to @tram_i_am.