Nearly three decades since Paris Is Burning first debuted to widespread critical acclaim, Kiki explores New York’s modern-day ballroom scene - only this time, the story is told from the perspective of the community itself.
The first feature-length debut from director Sara Jordenö, Kiki is a dynamic coming of age film about agency, resilience and the transformative power of self-expression to bring together New York’s disenfranchised LGBT youth-of-colour. Following members of the scene as they prepare for and perform at balls in and around West Village’s Christopher Street Pier, the documentary is as much a discussion of the ball’s social function as an alternative family structure, as it is a celebration of the creativity and energy of queer culture.
Jordenö and her co-writer Twiggy Pucci Garçon present ball culture as a gateway into conversations about activism, race and the Black-and Trans-Lives Matter movements. Whilst it champions a self-made world that’s flamboyant, vibrant and larger than life, Kiki is also grounded in the real world struggles facing LGBT youth-of-colour who are often homeless, forced into sex work and routinely harassed by police. Having been shot as recently as 2015, just one year before Trump’s election, it’s gives a much needed platform to a marginalized community who demand visibility and real political power. We spoke to Jordenö about what it’s like to spend five years working on one film, the legacy of Paris Is Burning and how we can combat racial inequality in the LGBT community.
Could you start by telling us a little bit about the documentary? Am I right in thinking you spent two years working on it?
It was five years actually! I was working on another project in Harlem, doing a series of interviews at Faces, the organisation where Twiggy and Chi Chi worked at the time. I was immediately drawn to their energy, it was just radiating from them. They heard I was a film-maker and they set up a meeting with me - they booked a conference room and everything - and told me about the Kiki scene, about how it was a youth-led offshoot of the ballroom scene. It was an incredible gift they gave me. We became such close friends throughout the filming process - people would ask, “Are you still in contact with these people”, and I’d think “Are you kidding!? Of course!”
It feels like the film consciously pushes back against the idea of a distant, observer-director. You’re part of the story yourself.
For a while when we were editing I wanted to comment more on my presence in the film, but it’s not about me. You see me sometimes, you hear questions from me - it’s a way to remind people that there was a crew, that there is an interaction between us.
Why did you make that decision? To be so closely involved?
I was very influenced by Fred Wiseman - he’s known for observatory cinema, fly-on-the-wall films. He probably wouldn’t like that characterisation (he would never have been in the film himself) but that’s how he’s referred to oftentimes. I think it’s important to remind the audience that there’s a recording situation going on, that there’s an interaction with the crew. I come from a visual arts world where people like to deconstruct the process, you’re supposed to show your hand. I didn’t want to do that too much - I’m a white-woman which makes it problematic - but my experience is a part of it, even if it’s not the focus of the film.
Did you ever feel quite conspicuous whilst you were filming Kiki?
You mean my outsiderness? I always knew that I was welcome because I’d been invited in. That was a precondition - people trusted me because of Twiggy. Then and only then did I start forming relationships with people myself. Some people used to say, “Here comes the Paris Is Burning lady”, which made me think - oh god! Sometimes people come in and want to photograph or take images and then leave, but we stuck around for a long time. We became part of the community as image makers. I’m not a leader of a house, I don’t walk, I don’t compete, I don’t train people but I’m there as a story-teller, as an image-maker. I feel comfortable in that role now.
Kiki feels quite distinct from Paris Is Burning because of that intimacy. Do the comparisons to Jennie Livingston’s film frustrate you?
When I got this invitation, it weighed on me a lot - I had to ask myself “Why should I do this?” but I couldn’t not do it, I was completely obsessed! When you meet this community and they welcome you, you just want to give it everything you’ve got, and that’s what I did. I knew there was controversy with this historic film - there was tensions between the community and the film-maker - and it’s really important to talk about that. But, there are other things that are important to talk about too. We should talk about how things have changed, how you can be an ally. We have privileges that determine who we are but we have things in common too. I don’t want to reinforce the idea that I automatically - because I’m white and European - exploited them and they fell into this victim role. To think that they would allow that - that someone like Gia would allow me to exploit her? This community, with its complexity and its history, has not been documented a lot, and I think it’s important to see, through documentary, how things have changed over time. I reject it when people say “What you’ve made is more ethical than Jennie Livingston”, I don’t have a comment on that. I just want people to see the documentary for what it is - look at how the community has changed, what strategies are they using to deal with the challenges they face.
How do you think things have changed for ball culture over the years?
I wasn’t there in the 80s, so I don’t really know, but it feels as though realness was about passing as straight. Now, there are now far more identities at play. When we see realness in the 80s - executive realness, or school-boy realness - they’re playfully referring to and subverting Ivy League schools or white culture, but now the Kiki scene is less about whiteness. It’s more self-reflexive, there are references to black culture and popular culture - there’s citation to black history and the history of ball culture itself.
There are moments in the film that prompt you to think about whether things have improved for LGBT youth-of-colour, or whether gay rights disproportionately benefits white, middle-class gay men and women.
There are voices from the margins that are coming through in Kiki. People are talking about the realities they face and giving advice on how to deal with those difficulties. It’s important to talk about the socioeconomic and racial disadvantages that they face but what do we mean “better”? What is the ideal that we’re striving for? Is it wealth? Is it some kind of hetero-normativity? We need basic rights, and that’s what the people in Kiki are fighting for. Part of the problem with talk of “getting better” is that it assumes we need to pull people up in some way, when instead we need to meet them where they are and empower them there - we mustn’t ask these kids to change. Kiki is trying to get its audience to change, not the subjects - do you see? It’s nauseating to think that a film-maker will come to a community and give them a voice. Kiki is trying to listen, the voice is already there. We have a hard time confronting the racial inequalities in the LGBTQ community but we must face those issues. You can only become stronger as a community if you work through your privilege. When marriage equality came through I remember seeing a white lesbian on TV - and I like lesbians! I felt empathy with this person! - standing outside of Stonewall, saying “Our fight is over!” ... I thought “What on earth are you talking about? Do you know where you’re standing right now? Do you know who’s been fighting for you all these years - trans-women of colour who still face oppression that we don’t even see.”
Particularly at a time when film adaptations of Stonewall’s heritage are whitewashing history...
Exactly! And there were a lot of people pushing back against that film - it shows that the community won’t be silenced. We have to recognise our history. We’re taking steps in the right direction but there is so much more to be done.