Fresh from its UK premiere at Sheffield’s Doc/Fest, Paul Jackson reviews Sara Jordenö’s inspiring documentary about New York’s voguing ballroom scene.
It’s hard to talk about Sara Jordenö’s Kiki without first discussing Paris Is Burning (1990). That’s not to say that Kiki isn’t its own film — it is, and a richly rewarding one at that — but for many viewers Jennie Livingston’s seminal documentary will have been their first, and possibly only, glimpse of the Harlem drag balls that provide Kiki its backdrop.
Although widely celebrated on release, and still rightly considered a classic, Paris Is Burning’s success quickly became mired in debates of documentary ethics and accusations of exploitation. Much of this criticism stems from Livingston’s outsider status — Jewish, white, lesbian — and the perception that she was reaping financial rewards at the expense of the film’s marginalised subjects. Livingston has denied the claims of sudden riches but acknowledged the opportunities afforded her as a Yale-educated white woman. “If they [the ballroom community] wanted to make a film about themselves,” she told the New York Times in 1993, “they would not be able.”
Even in the era of YouTube and increased access to video technology (almost everyone in Kiki is seen with an iPhone), Livingston’s comments still ring depressingly true. Jordenö is after all an outsider herself and three of the four production companies involved with Kiki are from Jordenö’s native Sweden, far removed from the Christopher Street pier where New York’s homeless LGBT youth are forced to sleep. Like many of Kiki’s subjects, though, the ways in which LGBT people-of-colour can represent themselves on film is going through something of a transition. Tangerine (2015), Sean Baker’s iPhone-shot breakthrough, for instance, depended on input from its two lead actresses, Mya Taylor and Kitani Kiki Rodriguez, both transwomen of colour who have experienced many of the difficulties highlighted in Kiki.
Like many of Kiki’s subjects, though, the ways in which LGBT people-of-colour can represent themselves on film is going through something of a transition.
Kiki takes this principle of community and filmmaker collaboration even further. Made in the spirit of the Kiki scene motto “not about us without us”, the film’s collaborative origins are made clear by the opening credits: ‘a film by Sara Jordenö and Twiggy Pucci Garçon’. Twiggy, mother of the Opulent Haus of PUCCI and a leading figure in the Kiki scene, is Jordenö’s co-writer and one of her main subjects but his involvement is even more instrumental than these titles suggest. Turning traditional documentary origins on their head, Twiggy was a subject looking for a filmmaker to “expose the Kiki scene to the mainstream.”
Alongside Twiggy, Jordenö follows another six subjects, including Chi Chi Mizrahi, mother of the House of Unbothered-Cartier and a HIV prevention campaigner. More than any other featured, Chi Chi’s story illustrates what it means to be a house mother and the crucial support they provide to younger house members including Izana Vidal, a teenage trans-women made homeless by her biological parents. If there’s one breakout voice, though, it belongs to Gia Love, a young trans-woman who began her transition during filming. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Gia’s mum proudly recalls her daughter’s success as a high school debater. Watching Gia talk about trans-rights, the trouble with marriage equality and “promoting her truth unapologetically” it is easy to imagine her high school rivals left speechless.
Although not part of the Kiki scene, Jordenö is anything but a silent collaborator. Her direction is impeccable: at times she’s an unobtrusive observer, often she’s an obvious stylist. In one of a number of hugely effective visual motifs, director of photography Naiti Gámez shoots Kiki’s subjects performing on an empty stage. Here, without the adrenaline of competition, Jordenö picks out individual movements, revealing their inherent grace. Similarly, Jordenö deploys a series of almost still-life shots of the Kiki scene dancers. Figures stand motionless — in various stages of transition and degrees of drag — saying nothing but silently conveying so much.
Her direction is impeccable: at times she’s an unobtrusive observer, often she’s an obvious stylist.
Kiki the scene and Kiki the film are both implicitly political. While the ballrooms are undeniably about looking fierce and owning the runway, they are also about creating safe spaces for queer expression and community building. In a very real sense, the Kiki performer’s lives depend on the ballroom scene. Jordenö’s subjects talk freely about the prevalence of HIV in their community, of flagrant police discrimination and severely limited job opportunities. As Twiggy leads a memorial vigil for a deceased friend he plainly observes that the LGBT community is on “very intimate terms with death.” It’s a shocking truth that continues to find new meanings as recent events in Orlando all too clearly illustrate.
Nonetheless, Kiki isn’t a sombre film. In fact, it’s genuinely inspiring and deeply joyful. Although different in their individual circumstances — drug addiction, abuse, family rejection, etc. — all of the film’s cast attest to the strength of community. In the ballrooms, they’ve created a culture in which to thrive. But community needn’t end in the ballroom. Twiggy and his fellow ballroom performers are taking their queer world building to community support groups, art festivals and even the Whitehouse. Kiki is very much part of this strategy; as such, it not only deserves to be seen, it needs to be seen.
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