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Brave Nude World: Documenting a Photographer's Eye for the Naked Truth

By Shelley Gabert

From 'positively + naked,' which airs on HBO. Courtesy of HBO

When Arlene Donnelly Nelson and David Nelson directed and produced Naked States (2001), a documentary about artist Spencer Tunick's quest to photograph individual portraits and large-scale installations of nudes in public places throughout the United States, they embarked on what eventually became a trilogy of films about Tunick and his work. In Naked States, its sequel Naked World (2003) and the short film positively naked (2005), the Nelsons have connected audiences to the creative journey of Tunick and his subjects in a fluid and compelling approach to profiling an artist whose work is very much a collaboration with the public.

"We're interested in making films about artists collaborating with the public, which is a very active process." says David Nelson, who has worked extensively in music video, and recently made his feature directing debut with Like Mike 2 for 20th Century Fox. "The films we've done and are working on now are about artists interacting and engaging with people, who become part of the actual art themselves and subsequently subjects within our films."

He and Donnelly Nelson, an award-winning director and cinematographer, have collaborated for 16 years. They met in high school in Brooklyn, New York and later became production assistants together on independent films, including several Spike Lee projects. Eventually, they married and moved to Los Angeles in 1996 and Donnelly Nelson went on to shoot many commercials and also served as director of photography on Christopher Guest's A Mighty Wind. She made her feature-length directing debut with Naked States, which Nelson produced, and they co-directed the last film in the trilogy, positively naked, a film about one event, in which Tunick brought 85 HIV people together in a downtown Manhattan restaurant to shoot a photograph for the cover of POZ Magazine's 10-year anniversary issue. The film won many awards on the festival circuit in 2005, including the Short Film Jury Award at the Silverdocs AFI Film Festival and a Gold Hugo Award, and was short-listed for Academy Award consideration last year. positively naked airs on HBO/Cinemax--which also aired Naked States and Naked World--December 1, World AIDS Day.

As to why Donnelly Nelson chose to add a third installment to the Naked series, she says, "There are so many misconceptions about the disease today--specifically what a person with HIV/AIDS looks like physically if they have access to the anti-retrovirals. Ironically, it is the efficacy of these drugs that is leading to a new complacency in this country. Some consider HIV a chronic illness."

"We were compelled to make this film because AIDS is still an urgent and preventable disease," adds Nelson. "For the first time in five years in this country, the number of cases are rising. We are very interested in telling stories about people and artists that motivate social change, dialogue and action."

Currently, the filmmakers are working on documentaries on two other artists--Eve Ensler, an Obie Award-winning playwright and author of The Vagina Monologues and The Good Body, and Ed Massey, a sculptor, artist and co-founder of Portraits of Hope, which provides opportunities for children who are disabled or dealing with serious illnesses to participate in large-scale public art projects.

The filmmakers will use a similar approach to these films as they used successfully with Tunick, which was to avoid having the artist theorize about their work, but rather to reveal the artist's process and its impact on the public.

"It was never our intention to have Spencer defend the motivations behind his art, but to experience his passion and his process," Nelson maintains. "What we have brought to all three of the films on Spencer--and will continue on our upcoming films--is to provide the context behind these projects that you wouldn't be aware of just by looking at the end result."

In Naked States and Naked World, which expands Tunick's canvas to seven continents, including Antarctica, and the final film in the trilogy, positively naked, issues of nudity, sexuality and body image are explored. The first film also tackles First Amendment protections, as Tunick is arrested in his hometown of New York City while trying to arrange a shoot in Times Square. But the Nelsons sought to expand beyond Tunick's personal and artistic journey by exploring the stories of those ordinary people who chose to pose for him. Their histories and their motivations to shed their clothes, as well as the specific cultural and geographic influences that are brought to bear on their decisions, give a voice to the installations, which sometimes include thousands of people.

In Tunick's installations, one never knows who or how many participants will show up. For positively naked it was important to the filmmakers to represent a cross-section of people affected by the disease even though the majority of people that arrived at the event were males between 40 and 50 years old. It was a challenge to persuade the women, one of whom hadn't revealed her status to her co-workers, to appear in the film. The film includes interviews with a single woman infected by her boyfriend, a married gay couple coping with the virus for 20 years and a man in his 20s--with an HIV-negative girlfriend--who contracted the virus through a blood transfusion when he was 14.

"In all three of our films on Spencer, we're really telling the personal stories of transformation while also confronting people's expectations," says Donnelly Nelson. "The first one was personal and about how the participant's own experiences affected their politics; the second one was how their culture informs their decision-making process; and the third one is a combination of the two--the personal is made political again."

The Massey documentary will share some of the same sensibilities as positively naked in that it's an event that brings a community together and explores the importance of the event. The film will focus on the Garden in Transit project--scheduled to launch in September 2007--where children will hand-paint vinyl panels on 12,760 New York City cabs.

It was while the Nelsons were pitching an idea on infidelity to HBO that Sheila Nevins and Nancy Abraham suggested they speak to Eve Ensler, who was working on a new play deconstructing love and marriage in the 21st century. As a cinematographer on Voices of Women, which focused on the 1995 Worldwide Women's Conference in Beijing, China, Donnelly Nelson already has been involved in a political documentary about women's issues. Donnelly Nelson immediately clicked with Ensler, who has made an art of bringing her personal life to the fore by examining issues that define our social and cultural issues of the day. The filmmaker explains, "We'll focus on her process for creating her new play, which will include her interviews with many people, but we'll also be creative and show her internal monologues, as well as include cinema vérité elements from her day-to-day life revealing her artistic process," she explains.

"Chris [Guest], Eve and Spencer are idiosyncratic and unique," Donnelly Nelson continues. "They see the world differently than most people, and they are passionate and unapologetic about it. This is inspirational to be around."

Donnelly Nelson's work on documentaries lends itself easily to the hand-held work she has done on Guest's films. She recently shot additional photography on his upcoming film, For Your Consideration, and she moves among documentaries, films and commercials. Nelson is currently writing a screenplay, but the couple will continue to work with artists.

"I find it fascinating and refreshing to work with artists because there are dynamic drives that motivate creative and artistic people," Donnelly Nelson maintains. "Equally as interesting is how an artist's work can affect people, oftentimes beyond how the artist intended."


Shelley Gabert is a contributing editor to Documentary, and she last wrote about the filmmaking partnership of DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.