Kiki Is the Ballroom Doc This Woke Generation DeservesEntertainment
Swedish director Sara Jordenö was terrified at the prospect of making her first feature. Around the beginning of 2012, she was presented with the opportunity to chronicle New York’s kiki scene, a younger and activistic offshoot of the ballroom scene. Entry into that insular world—which is known in the mainstream primarily through the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning as a place where queer people primarily of color come together to compete, vogue, model, and walk in balls—was being offered by two leaders of the kiki community, Twiggy Pucci Garçon (founder of the Opulent Haus of PUCCI) and Chi Chi Mizrahi (Founding Mother and creator of the House of Unbothered-Cartier and Empress of the Legendary House of Mizrahi). Twiggy and Chi Chi had been discussing creating some sort of multimedia representation of their community when they met Jordenö at the HIV/AIDS service organization in Harlem where they worked at the time, Faces NY.
“Every documentary filmmaker has to ask, ‘Why should I do this?,’” Jordenö told me last week about the eventual product of that first meeting, the documentary Kiki.
Beyond general existential self-interrogation, there was a specific source of Jordenö’s dread—she was an outsider (white, from Sweden, albeit queer) setting forth to capture a world that is made up of LGBT people of color in New York. The parallels between the dynamic here and in the making of Paris Is Burning (that movie’s director, Jennie Livingston, is also a white queer woman) are striking, at least superficially. And it is Livingston’s inherent privilege and outsider status that have kept the debate over Paris Is Burning’s worth raging for over 25 years.
“Any situation now where a white person is involved in the production of stories about people of color is going to be controversial, but I feel like now there’s a discourse around that,” explained Jordenö. So then, what was the answer? Why did she ultimately decide that she should be the one to make Kiki?
“My answer was a long discussion with Twiggy and Chi Chi, you know, ‘Why am I the right person?,’” she continued. “They had put their faith in me but I needed to solve that. I felt that I had something to contribute really strongly, and I wanted to.” Jordenö calls the kiki scene, where the house mother is at the top of the social hierarchy and praise can come in the form of repurposing the words “cunt” and “pussy,” the “absolute opposite of the toxic masculinity of the Trump administration.” She says she noticed support structures in kiki that were similar to those she experienced in Swedish feminist groups in “joining against oppression and affirming each other and lifting each other up.”
Jordenö further justified her involvement to herself by electing to work with Twiggy behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera. (Twiggy, Chi Chi, and five other young people comprise the film’s seven primary subjects.) So Jordenö and Twiggy began discussing, in chunks of time sometimes stretched to five hours long, what this movie might look like. Their prep lasted a few months before shooting began—Twiggy would help acquaint Jordenö with the community, showing her around and introducing her to people. Twiggy was frequently present for shooting (though not everyday), saw rough cuts, and gave editing notes.
Jordenö further endeared herself to the kiki community by helping Twiggy arrange the Reincarnation of Rockland Palace ball, footage of which appears in the film.
“That’s when people were saying, ‘Oh, she’s making a ball for us, she’s contributing,’ which is a big thing. And I stayed around for a long time,” says Jordenö, who shot for almost four years starting in March 2012.
Separately, Jordenö and Twiggy emphasize the collaborative nature of their filmmaking process. During a 20-minute conversation phone conversation, Twiggy used the word “collaboration” or some variation of it at least half a dozen times. “You need to see it as a collaboration,” is how Jordenö put it. The opening credits state that Kiki is “a film by” Jordenö and Twiggy, while its end credits list them as having written the script.
I wondered aloud to both of them what it meant to have a co-writer on a documentary—what the actual process of this collaboration looked like.
“When we talk about documentary filmmakers, we often forget the people that give them access,” is how Jordenö explained Twiggy’s co-writing credit. “Twiggy’s a gatekeeper of the community, so having him vouch for me and introducing me and teaching me about the community. To be able to talk to Twiggy and say, ‘This is what I see from my outsider perspective, at least from the beginning, is that correct?’ or,‘What is the nuance?’ For him to say, ‘Yes,’ or, ‘No, it’s slightly that way,’ our conversations were a lot about that.”
“[I had] a lot of different roles, to be completely honest, but I think ‘co-writer’ is most appropriate because that credit has to do with making sure the story is told in a certain way, and so that looks like already having the community’s trust and helping to build that with not just Sara, but everyone [in the crew],” said Twiggy, referring to the largely female team that included Jordenö, two women producers, two women D.P.s, and a sound woman (Jordenö has referred to Kiki as an “intersectional feminist project”). “Anything from setting up interviews to quite literally everyday going through the footage and writing down notes.”
“Our intent was to tell our stories, not to entertain.”
In the film, Twiggy describes the work he’s doing with Jordenö as “a project to expose the kiki scene to mainstream society.” Regarding the impetus for this exposure, he told me, “There haven’t been enough representations not just of ballroom but of black queer and trans experiences accurately. It’s been very sensationalized. It was very important to me to be able to share that story in a way so that folks can see themselves mirrored and know that, hey, actually I can do this, I can do that, I can be this, I can be that.”
Gia Marie Love, another of the film’s subjects, provided a tangible example of what the lack of the mirror Twiggy is referring to felt like. “No one taught me to be trans, no one shaped my trans-ness for the most part growing up,” she told me. “It was all in my head. There was no guide. I didn’t see people on TV growing up trans and making mistakes. I had to just make them. Most of us just have to make them.”
The filmmakers’ emphasis on representation and allergy to sensationalizing has resulted in the ballroom doc that this generation would seem to demand (at least the portion of this generation that cares about social justice and isn’t trying to control where trans people pee). Kiki is unfailingly earnest and only sporadically humorous. It is openly invested in its subjects’ interior lives. In its conscious attempt to go deeper than the fabulousness with which mainstream culture regards stylish queer people of color who dance well, it ticks off a laundry list of attendant issues (often briefly, in a manner that sometimes favors talking heads telling rather than showing) like activism, homelessness, police harassment, HIV/AIDS, coming out, and sex work. The community organizing and rehearsing that goes into the balls gets as much (if not more) screen time than the balls themselves.
“Our intent was to tell our stories, not to entertain,” said Twiggy.
Comparisons to Paris Is Burning are inevitable, not because Kiki is structurally or even tonally similar—the former demands to be quoted, the latter commands you to be quiet and listen. But you can’t watch Kiki without thinking about Paris simply because the two movies’ roughly overlapping subject matter of ballroom and LGBT people of color in general is so rare, even in the“special interest” cinematic world of documentary. Jordenö tells me she’s seen Paris Is Burning “many, many” times but she doesn’t like the comparison. Twiggy calls the classic doc “really important” and “a great work of art,” while Gia tells a story of how seeing it on television when she was a child on was among her earliest exposure to people like her.
“It’s not Part 2,” Gia qualified. “It could be but it’s not, because ballroom is so dynamic. LGBT life—black, white, communities of color—is very dynamic. There could be many stories.”
Gia’s storyline is notable for effectively documenting her transition—the earliest footage of her that appears in the film shows her pre-transition. She watches this footage on camera and comments on it. Discussing pre-transition life can be taboo among trans people, but not Gia.
“It’s very hard to exploit me.”
“People tell you when you’re trans to forget about your past, because it may dim the light of your present. I don’t believe that,” said Gia. “I believe that my past has really shaped who I am today and to see those images and visuals of that makes me proud of the process and the progress.”
Jordenö emphasizes the collaborative spirit not just united her with Twiggy, but was also present with all of her subjects (who apparently all had some degree of agency regarding how they were presented) and the greater community, whose members not even appearing in Kiki were shown early screenings and invited to give feedback.
Still, I wondered if at any point during her process, Gia worried that Jordenö might be out to exploit her, to essentially swoop in from elsewhere and colonize her story.
“It’s very hard to exploit me,” answered Gia. “I come from a community that has been exploited so much and I’m very observant. I always make sure if I’m going to be a part of something that it’s going to be beneficial for me or people who are like me. I’m fine where I’m at right now. I don’t have much, but what I have is enough for me. So if it can’t do greater good then I wouldn’t be a part of it.”
“It can be a really wrong assumption that I can exploit Gia as a filmmaker,” added Jordenö. “She would not allow that. It would be giving me too much power.”