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There's Finally a Documentary that Captures Today's Thriving Ballroom Scene In All its Complexity

We spoke to the creators of 'Kiki' about spending four years documenting the struggles and triumphs of NYC's vogue performers.

by Chantel Simpson
Apr 29 2016, 6:10pm

Jack Mizrahi, Sara Jordenö and Twiggy Pucci Garcon (Photo by Maxwell Schiano/RBMA)

Every time I've attended Vogue Knights, a vogue party and staple of NYC's ballroom scene held every Monday in Midtown, I've left in awe of each performer's raw display of ferocity in their fight to win one of the coveted titles of the night. Voguing is unlike any other dance with it's beautiful display of contrasts—soft, fluid twirls and contortions contend against harder, friction-filled locks, dips, and death drops.

I often feel like I'm being schooled in my own femininity while watching these performers duckwalk and sashay their hearts out in performance categories such as "Virgin Vogue" or "Soft N' Cunt". They twirl their hair harder, swing their hips faster, and strike a pose more elegantly than any woman I know.

But nothing is more striking than the spectacle of performers and audience members cheering on their sisters to ballroom stardom. This unshakable sense of community is clearly what has kept the ballroom scene alive and strong in NYC's underground for the past five decades, while also contributing to the subculture developing in cities like Paris and Tokyo.

For those spectators who are unfamiliar with the ballroom scene, a vogue ball can appear to be a glamourous affair—colorful and voluminous homemade gowns sweep the floor of an impromptu runway; shiny wigs and glittery make-up add to the pomp and circumstance.

However, what many outsiders may not immediately take away is that voguing is more than a form of expression for the LGBTQ youth of color that make up the vast majority of performers. When a voguer steps onto the floor to compete, he or she is selling their true self—a unique identity in a heteronormative world that does not fully understand or accept them. In that moment, for that one night, they vogue and they strut to relieve themselves from the often harsh realities of their home life.

This is the side of ballroom that Kiki, a documentary by Swedish filmmaker Sara Jordenö and NYC-based LGBTQ activist Twiggy Pucci Garçon, succeeds in capturing. Even though it's been 26 years since Jennie Livingston's seminal documentary Paris is Burning first exposed the hardships that black and Latino LGBTQ youth in NYC faced in the late 80s, Kiki reveals the unsettling reality that not much has changed for young voguers today.

Kiki hones in on the "kiki" scene, a subgroup within the larger ballroom community consisting of a young generation of gay youth who've created their own "house" systems and balls to challenge the status quo, much like their predecessors. The film interweaves the stories of it's central characters, who, with little restraint, tell tales of homelessness, homophobia, and transitioning in a city that can oftentimes be unforgiving.

There's Divo, a soft-spoken and highly skilled voguer, who entered the ballroom scene to cope with past abuse and affirm his gay identity. Gia Marie Love, a transwoman and advocate for trans youth of color, brings to light the differing layers of privilege that exist within the larger LGBTQ community through her forthright views and staunch advocacy. The upbeat Chi Chi Mizrahi, formidable mother of the House of Unbothered-Cartier, provides comic relief but also an honest look at the challenges that come with being a house mother to at-risk youth.

Though the film provided a balanced look at the lives of LGBTQ youth of color in NYC, I was still left with many questions, mainly about the filmmakers' process, LGBTQ activism, the cost of a performer's "effect". So I had a chat with director Sara and co-writer Twiggy to discuss what was on my mind after letting Kiki into my life.

Divo, a major character in the film (Photo courtesy of RBMA)

THUMP: Sara, you're from Sweden, which is an ocean away from the ballrooms of NYC. What drew you to the kiki scene?

Sara Jordenö: I have been living in New York for 14 years now. But I definitely didn't know about the kiki scene. I only knew about ballroom culture theoretically through reading Judith Butler and queer theory. And I knew about "Paris is Burning."

These extremely dynamic, vibrant people—Twiggy and Chi Chi and several others —I was just drawn to them. When they learned that I was an artist, they set up a meeting with me to see if we could do a project together. It was this amazing gift to me as a filmmaker. I knew very quickly that the amazing platform that Twiggy and other leaders in the scene have created [is] very important, and it would take every skill that I've got to make a film that would do it justice.

My outside perspective was a problem for me. I was like, why me? They put their faith in me, and could I really do this? I figured that the only way would be if we were writing the film together. And it was amazing, they were so creative. I wasn't hindered in any way; this collaboration just amplified everything. It was just this magic encounter.

Twiggy, what did you think about Sara's intentions, and what this film would mean for your community?

Twiggy Pucci Garçon: As Sara stated, we actually approached her about making a project. We didn't know that it would be a feature documentary film. We wanted to do something together, so the intentions were aligned. That intention was that we wanted to make a beautiful work of art and present it to the world.

"It was important to show the constant threats of attacks the characters face within the outside world. If you don't see the struggles, you don't understand their art that you see on the ballroom floor."—Sara Jordenö

I want to talk about specific moments in the film. Symba, a commentator at kiki balls, says "house mothers are the parents that many LGBTQ youth of color never had." Twiggy, how do you establish yourself as a house mother?

Garçon: When you're the parent of a particular house, it's because you have a certain level of leadership and tenure, and you are going to be able to contribute certain things for the house. So it really is a matter of representation, and usually people ask you to be their parent.

Sara, there is scene where Gia Marie Love, a transwoman and central character, curses out a young boy who taunts her while you guys are walking down street. It's a very real moment. What was it like to capture on film this instance of explicit homophobia, and what did you take away from that experience?

Jordenö: We got very very uncomfortable, all of us. I think the situation was amplified because this is not far from where Islan [Nettles] was killed. Do you know of Islan? The transwoman that was murdered in Harlem a couple of years back. I had asked to film at that spot, which was close to Rockland Palace, an old ballroom venue, it's torn down now. I felt very worried that we had put ourselves in a difficult situation, so we wanted to get out of there really fast.

I feel like it was important in the film to show what kind of struggles the characters face within the outside world, the normal world, the every day. The constant threat of attacks, verbal and physical. If you don't see the struggles, you don't understand their art that you see on the ballroom floor. You seem them voguing down, you see them expressing the femininity in a masculine body or a trans body, and maybe you don't get how dangerous it is to express that in the outside world. You don't understand how this expressiveness has been taken away from these individuals. That's why their art is so explosive, and that's why it's also a healing art. So I think it's important to see it.

Twiggy Pucci Garçon (Photo by Maxwell Schiano/RBMA)

The film captures some of its subjects reactions when gay marriage is legalized in America. Gia Marie Love's reaction stuck with me the most. She states: "If gay, white men didn't want to get married... it would have probably never been legalized." Then she goes on to say that LGBTQ people of color need to refocus and put in the same effort that white, gay America has put in for change to happen in their community. Twiggy, what obstacles do you both face in rallying LGBTQ youth of color to fight for solutions to the problems they're facing?

Garçon: There needs to be a more unified front for LGBTQ people of color, and that's already starting to happen. So I don't necessarily think it's an obstacle, I wouldn't frame it that way. But one of the challenges is that people are working in silos. People are doing amazing things, but they're not necessarily strategizing and collaborating on a coordinated effort. So to me that's one of the biggest challenges.

Jordenö: What Gia brings forward is also about class. When she says "we need to refocus," I don't see it as LGBTQ people of color need to refocus—but the whole LGBTQ political movement needs to refocus and see that there's a lot to fight for still. There are many more people to fight for. I'm afraid that the LGBTQ movement will end the fight here, and that does not speak well for us as a political community at all. I would be very disappointed if we somehow stop fighting when we think that we've got some privilege.

In terms of subject matter, what were your initial intentions for Kiki and how did the direction of the film change as you continued to shoot your subjects over the course of four years?

Jordenö: The film became character-driven. The stories that you see in the film were the stories where we were able to follow people over the course of several years and really capture their journey. That's why when we watched it with the cast for the first time, it was so emotional because Gia is one person and you can really see her journey. She was saying, "when you live it, you don't see it." But through the film she was able to see herself growing up in a way.

The journey that Twiggy has done through the past couple of years is magnificent too. [He is] this person that we see at the beginning of the film who is struggling, but still a leader. Now he's someone who gets invited to the White House. We didn't intend to make a film about the kiki world, just make people excited about Kiki and the underground. But people's journeys of getting real political power in the mainstream, like Twiggy, those stories helped it become a character-driven story.

An outtake of female performers from Kiki (Video via Facebook)

What do you think about the ballroom scene and the kiki scene entering the mainstream consciousness? Do you ever fear that people will only take it at face value and not understand that it's more than just voguing and fancy costumes?

Garçon: One thing that I think is really really amazing about the ballroom and kiki scenes is its governing and its structure. It is very safeguarded and protected, and wades around commodification, appropriation and things like that. So as the kiki scene becomes bigger and more well-known in the mainstream entertainment media, there's a lot of things in place to assure its safety, and to assure that it remains a safe space for us.

It's a beautiful thing that people are learning about the scene—and I think there is a lot to learn. One of the beautiful things about the film is that it's not just about the performance, it's not just about the dance, it's not just about the costumes. It's really about the intersectional feeling that happens though the kiki scene. And that's what we want people to know from the film.

"I see a difference between the most skillful dancer incorporating voguing into his or her routine, and the people in the kiki scene expressing the struggles of their life."—Sara Jordenö on why voguing is hard to appropriate well

Jordenö: Twiggy says in one of our earliest interviews, "ballroom is everywhere, you just don't see where it comes from. It's not credited to where it comes from." People think that Madonna created it, some artists like Beyonce do credit the community as an inspiration. But other do not. It's now in commercials, it's everywhere.

People are so excited about the performances and the images. Yes, they're amazing, but let's go under that, let's see what made these performances so great, and what makes it actually quite hard to appropriate. I see a difference between the most skillful dancer incorporating voguing into his or her routine and the people that I know in the Kiki scene that are expressing the struggles of their life.

So I think it's already in the mainstream, we need to see more nuances. I hope that we will see it in a more serious way, in a deeper way. It's my hope that we made a film that has some depth to it, and I think we did. I'm incredibly proud of that, but the only way I can be proud is because the community told us so. The community has said "you've made a film that is complex, and isn't just a glance at a ballroom performance. It was trying to go deeper."

DJ MikeQ playing a party at Sundance for Kiki. MikeQ's label, Qween Beat, helped to score the film. (Photo via Facebook)

I noticed that there was one particular voice missing from the film: the voice of a lesbian or transman. Why was that?

Garçon: I can take a stab at that question. It's just realistically, making a film, we just don't have enough of those identities. [We don't want to] half-ass those identities and think that one story could represent those people if we weren't able to do it full-force. But that doesn't mean that there won't be another great film about folks with those identities—I'm working on one myself!

Where do you see the kiki scene in the future? What do you hope for the kids that will get to the scene as an escape and as a form of therapy?

Garçon: I hope they come to a place where they be calm enough in mind where they heal through the things that increases their internal values and how they view themselves to themselves and to the world. And that they get connected to all the resources they need, whether that's something as simple as a metrocard, a place to stay, or a meal—or as complex as the career that they actually dream of happening.

Jordenö: As a community, I really wish, and I think it will happen, that they get the recognition they deserve for the very acceptive parts of advocacy that they've created. And I think there's still a lot of misconceptions about this demographic, so they just don't get the recognition they deserve. I hope one day things will change and people will get the rights they deserve.

Chantel Simpson is an associate producer at THUMP. Follow her on Twitter