For “Downtown Divas”, a 16mm short film and photograph series by Gigi Ben Artzi and Loral Amir, the idea was to consider a group of Russian heroin addicts outside of the normal context you might normally see them in; to dress them in high end fashions (Acne, Alexander Wang, Miu Miu, Louis Vuitton, erc), and to talk to them about the things that matter to them beyond their addictions. We asked the artists to explain more about the process and the experience. Watch the film below.
What inspired you to shoot this film?
Gigi: I came across one of the girls one night. She had the characteristics of a model, very thin, cool haircut… I thought it could be cool to photograph her like a model. Loral, who was interested in shooting on 16mm suggested to film it later on, and that’s how this project all came together.
Loral: During the second half of the 20th century, influenced by the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s , models have aimed to be thin. In the mid nineties, that image had been extremely accentuated with the rise of “Heroin Chic”, and is still today, with glamorous photos of skinny looking girls with dark circles under their glazed eyes. These are some of the aesthetic characteristics of drug addicts. But when you actually take real drug addicts and dress them in top fashion the contrast is astounding. Beyond the aesthetic challenge I also thought it could be interesting to show a different side of the women and ignore that “drug addict” tag that they carry around.
How did you find the women that you spoke to?
Loral: Well,that was the toughest part of the project. All the girls we’ve shot are hardcore heroin addicts. Most of them speak Russian and are living off the proceeds of street prostitution.They mostly hang around under this bridge; it’s like a crack house. Everyone is drugged, there are pimps and drug dealers. It’s a very dark place, and quite scary to be there. [We promised them we wouldn’t say which city it was in].
When we first went there everyone thought that we were cops. We drew too much attention, and it was getting too dangerous so we had to flee before something went wrong.
Eventually we managed to get one girl to come with us to the studio and she helped us to find the rest of the women. It was not easy as they are all high on heroin and totally unstable because of their dependency on the drug.
They seem “okay” for a moment but when the withdrawal kicks in they get dope sick and “flip.” It’s like a time-bomb. There were some girls that we brought to the studio but could not photograph because by the time we arrived they were already so dope sick that it was just impossible to film them. They were like zombies.
Were there any dangerous incidents?
Loral: It all got out of control on the last day of filming . We went under that bridge again. I waited in the car while Gigi went to find more women we could film. He came back with two girls. They were totally crazy on crack and did not get along, cursing and shouting at each other, so the whole situation was already intense. They got into the car, I locked the doors (it’s a scary area), and was about to drive away. Suddenly, out of nowhere, 3 muscly, aggressive men are jumping on the car, surrounding us. They were screaming “get out of the car” and trying to smash the windshield. The girls were sitting in the back, hysterically screaming that these guys are dangerous pimps/drugs dealers. They tell me I’m gonna get beaten to death if I don’t manage to drive off. I’m 22 and rarely drive, I reversed the car like Bruce-fucking Willis into the opposite lane. Luckily, we did not crash. I went up on the freeway, getting as far as I could from that area, but we suddenly discover that these guys are right behind us, chasing us.
So now Im in a car chase, on the freeway, with two prostitutes smoking crack in my mom’s car (while Lionel Richcie’s “All Night Long “ is blasting from the tape cassette stereo ). I tried calling 911 but was too panicked to even dial.
At some point these guys got ahead of us and we had to stop. Pulled out in the middle of the highway, they got out of their car and tried to smash the windows and pull us out of the car again. We suddenly realise that they are actually undercover cops!
Gigi: At first they were very aggressive. They searched us and said that we were going to jail for soliciting of prostitution, fleeing police by car and other drug related felonies, but within minutes they realized that something wasn’t right here and we finally explained to them that we were only doing this art project and thought that they are actually criminals who wanted to beat us up for some reason. It was a whole big misunderstanding, which fortunately ended with no harm. I showed them some of the photos on my iPhone too and they got the picture.
Loral: The cops told us that if we weren’t going to pull over there were more police cars waiting at the next exit instructed to shoot towards our car in order to stops us.
Obviously the girls knew that those guys were cops but they tricked us and made us flee so they wouldn’t get caught themselves with narcotics !they fooled us!
You mentioned something about wanting to focus on other aspects of their lives besides the drug use itself. Why was that?
Loral: Yes,well, usually, when drug addicts are the subject, we only hear about how they fell into the world of drugs and how heroin has wrecked their lives etc etc.Instead of focusing on these aspects and photographing them in their natural environment like we usually see, we brought them into the studio, got them to wear clothes designed by the likes of Louis Vuitton,Acne, Kenzo, Miu Miu and talked to them about music, habits, dreams and so on. At no point did we wish to glamorize drug use, only to highlight reality.
Was it a hard subject to deal with emotionally for you?
Gigi: Of course. Mainly because of the fact that these women are chained to a world of self destruction and are destroying and hurting themselves without the ability to stop. Some of them tried going to government drug programs and rehab facilities but could not manage to stay clean and got back to drugs unfortunately.
Loral: I feel the same. I definitely had trouble trying to sleep after spending time filming those girls.The process was mentally exhausting and very painful.
What was something you learned in the making of it that surprised you?
Gigi: I was surprised by the fact that even though these women are in a very bad place, both mentally and physically, they are still very sensitive and have the same dreams and hopes as ordinary women do. They live in a parallel universe: Living dead. Transparent. Their background stories are also very painful . One of the girls was actually a cop who was working for the drug enforcement administration. At some point she was tempted to try crack and now she’s hooked on it. In addition, most of the women we shot are prostitutes and I was surprised about the kind of men who visit them for sexual purposes. Some are respectful journalists, business men, lawyers, politicians. All are very powerful men who choose to take advantage of their power and use these women.
One of the most shocking things was to learn how cruel this drug is. One of the girls, who only started to use recently, showed us some pictures of her online on this Russian social networking website. These photos were taken about two years ago, before she started using drugs, and she looked like a complete different person. It’s impossible to recognize her, and think that it’s actually the same girl. It’s very sad.
Created by: Gigi Ben Artzi and Loral Amir
Directed and produced by : Loral Amir and Gigi Ben Artzi
Steel shots by: Gigi // Music composed by: Loral
Cinematography: Ofir Peretz
Executive producer: Joe FIeisch
Video Home System: T.Shoshan
Editor: Kash Kash
Thanks to: V.Cox, M.Goldman, G.Snir