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Twenty-five years after Jennie Livingston made Paris Is Burning, about the drag scene and voguing balls of 1980s New York, that ineffably fabulous underground culture pulses with fresh energy in Kiki. The big difference in Swedish filmmaker Sara Jordeno’s vibrant documentary portrait is that it surveys the lives of LGBTQ youth-of-color at a time when Black Lives Matter has become a national movement and trans rights is making a long-overdue entry into the political conversation.
Written by Jordeno with Twiggy Pucci Garcon, a gatekeeper of the New York “Kiki” scene, the film is an all-access pass to the dance-offs among various houses whose very names are a guarantee of streetwise theatricality — from the House of Amazura to the House of Unbothered Cartier.
But this is also an innately political film. With a simple eloquence that never gets preachy, it makes the point that the gay marriage movement was driven by the white middle class, while the marginalized transgender community remains largely unrepresented. No mention is made of breakthrough celebrity trans figures like Caitlyn Jenner. But few will fail to observe that the struggle for identity, visibility, respect and rights being explored here is not the journey of a rich white Republican with a team of stylists, a Vanity Fair cover and a massive support infrastructure.
Many of the interview subjects — captured by Jordeno with an intimacy that cuts through the proudly cultivated outer fierceness — are at-risk homeless youth, often rejected by their families and ostracized by their communities when they came out as gay or trans. The various ballroom factions, presided over by “housemothers,” serve a vital function as surrogate families, while also providing a collective activist voice. The doc illustrates how team captains as young as 15 or 16 can often find themselves assuming responsibility for large groups.
Going beyond the psychological damage caused by lack of social acceptance, the film considers the starker realities of basic survival.
Transphobic attitudes limit employment options, forcing many young transgender people into sex work, which is treated as a community norm. Paying for healthcare, HIV meds or hormone therapy for transitioning youth becomes a constant challenge. Some of the commentary about the difficulties of dealing simultaneously with puberty and gender identity issues is quite affecting.
But there’s also an underlying sense of empowerment and liberation running through Kiki, notably in the series of beautiful still shots of faces engaging direct-to-camera, and gorgeous displays of voguing attitude in public spaces like Christopher Street Pier.
Voguing seems to be experiencing a mini-resurgence in the broader pop culture — in The Wiz Live!, in FKA twigs’ “Glass & Patron” video and in the online clip of that Russian schoolboy, whose regal moves might just be the perfect FU to Putin. Nonetheless, it’s great to watch the phenomenon at the grass-roots level, directly descended from its 1980s origins, and going further back, from the 1930s drag balls of Harlem’s Rockland Palace. What began as a masquerade has evolved into a form of imperious self-expression as activism.
Backed by music from ballroom collective Qween Beat, the voguing footage covers contests filmed from 2012-15. Co-writer Twiggy and other house captains provide insider insight to a range of personalities, each of them exploring his or her uniqueness on the runway and off. There are moving testaments from family members who have embraced their transgender daughters and sisters, and stirring statements of self-affirmation that challenge the standard divisions between traditional masculinity and femininity, rejecting labels in favor of individualistic “realness.”
An uplifting sense emerges of the resilience through community of youth who are marginalized, abandoned, isolated, bullied or sexually exploited. As one interview subject says, “It’s important that people see this film and know that we’re strong as f—.”
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Story, Hard Working Movies, in association with Sveriges Television, Film Vast
Director: Sara Jordeno
Writers: Sara Jordeno, Twiggy Pucci Garcon
Producers: Annika Rogell, Lori Cheatle
Executive producer: Tobias Janson
Director of photography: Naiti Gamez
Music: Qween Beat
Editor: Rasmus Ohlander
Not rated, 94 minutes
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