Samira Elagoz candidly explores first encounters in her film Craigslist Allstars
Words: Talya Galasko | Photographs: Nick Gordon
By the first time I meet Samira Elagoz, I have already seen her bare body several times over. Sometimes it’s perched nipples shining through a cropped T-shirt and a bottom just-about covered in sky blue briefs, or it’s curls cascading to her lower back as she stands in the arms of a stranger. She is mesmerizing and shy all at once, and wears her eyeliner in cat-eye shape with lace-up military boots – even though she carries a dainty lavender clutch and keeps the poised posture of a disciplined dancer.
Born in Helsinki in 1989, this young performance artist is the director and producer of the feature-debut film, Craigslist Allstars, which is being screened at the Encounters Documentary Festival this week. With a running time of 65 minutes, the film recounts a series of unscripted first encounters between herself, the documentarian, and the subjects she recruits (all of them men) by using a Craigslist advert which reads: “READ ME! Looking for strangers!” The setup is simple: over the course of several weeks, across three cities, using more than 15 male subjects, she films how they get to know each other. Elagoz explores how the camera affects the intimacy between strangers – a lonely plumber, sadist pianist, magician, soft-core porn director and more. The meetings themselves are replayed in just a few minutes each, with the tone rallying between the endearing, innocent, erotic and thrillingly uninhibited.
Having studied Dance briefly in Austria, Elagoz explains that it was the simulated, often restrained expression of more contemporary styles that encouraged her not only to leave to study the Arts, but also to capture something that was more real and never-before-seen later on. “It was my allocation for a few years to train someone to perform for me or to look at their technical skills, and it was such a bizarre idea to think that I would train someone to be how I want them to be,” she explains. “I felt that in dance school, everyone was trying to study to become the same. At the arts school that I got to study at in Amsterdam, everyone was trying to study to become as different as possible from each other. As a dancer you are a part of somebody else’s work and I wanted to make my own work. So I thought I’ll rather choose people and let them be as they are, and a part of that is the first encounter.”
The film itself is a masterpiece in improvisation, and manages to explore not only what happens in a first meeting between two strangers, but also how adding a camera and capturing that encounter in real-time affects the level of intimacy and pace. As Elagoz puts it, “When you put two strangers in front of a camera, you tend to skip handshakes.”
What is most refreshing about Elagoz and her work is not just its naked honesty, but also its ability to candidly subvert the narrative of being a woman captured and portrayed by a man. Even though Elagoz flips the camera on her male subjects rather than controlling them, she gives them the very freedom of agency that their female counterparts are often not allowed when the situation is reversed. While it turned out that most of her subjects chose to be depicted in some sexual way or another, Elagoz explains that it was always their choice to do so.
In spite of this, Elagoz explains the repercussions of adding a sexual element to her film: “It seems to be very difficult for many people to see women as being self-deciding,” she says. “You know we see all kinds of sex in movies and when it’s a man portraying women it’s fine, but when women are kind of showing it to you with an element of agency, it’s sort of threatening, or a bit dangerous. Also, I noticed that it seems to, for some people, lessen your credibility to show yourself as a sexual being.”
While Craigslist Allstars has been well received and Elagoz is thrilled about it being featured in a “regular” documentary festival (and not something of the soft-core porn variety), she remains critical of the inequality in the field. “We know a lot of men who use sex in their films, but they are never labelled sex films. They can be art films. But when you see women doing it, it’s not so easily considered that. When I think – what is the difference I find between female directors and male directors? – it’s that female directors always have to come with the fact that they are women. It’s either going away from it or highlighting it, and with male directors, they’re not so busy with the fact that they are guys. They just make the shit they want to make! And as a woman artist you’re always either using your beauty or going away from it, or it’s a feminist film or it’s not. I would like that women can make a film and that’s just it. It’s not a female film or a feminist film, it’s just considered as an art piece in the same way it is with men.”
In addition to her debut-feature film, Elagoz has made another 65-minute short titled Cock Cock, Who’s There, which explores the relationship between intimacy and violence. The artist also has a long stream of bite-size videos on her Vimeo account, which portray sexuality, eroticism and intimacy in a raw, unique and truly feminine way, without letting bureaucratic or budgetary constraints stop her from creating. “My works are kind of minimal budget and I like that, I think it’s good,” she says. “Now people ask, “When are you going to apply money?” but I don’t have this need to do it, it’s not the way I think. I have my camera, I have my computer, I have myself and I can do a lot with that. I think that that was also a very important part of it. Learning to be self-sufficient and not depending on others. That’s why I’m in the film, I’m doing the film, I’m editing the film and I’m producing it. As a young maker, you should learn to make something with basically nothing and then work from there, you know. There’s no reason for you to be stopped by this.”