Sara Jordenö understands why her documentary Kiki, which she co-wrote with Twiggy Pucci Garçon, reminds people of Paris is Burning. On the surface, they seem to belong together. Separated by 25 years, the two documentaries give viewers a firsthand look at New York City's still-vibrant underground ballroom scene. But Jordenö doesn't want you to call her documentary, which premiered at Sundance in 2016 and finally sees its New York theatrical release tomorrow, a remake of Jennie Livingston's landmark queer classic. And definitely don't call it an "unofficial sequel."
She bristles when I bring it up. We're sitting in New York's NeueHouse, a co-working space where she'll later shoot some videos with the wildly talented subjects of her film. Mention of that other documentary about vogueing and ballroom culture feels like a necessary pit stop in our conversation; thankfully, she's more than happy to discuss it, if only to dispel further comparisons. It's not that she doesn't see the parallels. But the need to bring it up mostly reminds her how under-documented and under-represented queer youth of color are on the screen. "It's a community that thousands of films should be made about," she says. And so, knowing full well that there's no escaping the looming presence of Livingston's documentary, she's all too happy to talk about the ways in which Kiki deserves to stand on its own.
For starters, Jordenö's film doesn't have as much actual vogueing as you'd expect. It does open with fabulous sequences where we see members of the "kiki scene" strutting and posing around New York (on the subway, by the piers, on the streets). Yet the film's emphasis clearly leans toward the political activism and community organizing that motivates this younger offshoot of the city's ballroom scene. The artistry of the ballroom scene is what brings these teens together, but it is their ongoing advocacy for trans rights, HIV prevention, and LGBTQ homelessness that truly sets them apart.
That advocacy is what originally drew Jordenö to the project. It was Garçon, a self-described gatekeeper of the kiki ballroom scene who works at the LGBTQ youth homelessness organization True Colors Fund, and Chi Chi Mizrahi, a beloved ballroom community member, who first approached her about collaborating on a project centered on these politically active and artistically ambitious teenagers. They were thinking of something small, like a web series. But once Jordenö attended several meetings and a handful of kiki balls, she knew this had to be a documentary on a much bigger scale.
Trained as an academic and with a background in the visual arts, the Swedish-born and New York City–based filmmaker knew she would need help pulling it off. That meant not only collaborating with Garçon ("Ethically, we both knew it was the right thing to do," Jordenö said, wanting to avoid feeling like she was exploiting those she profiled) but seeking out the best team she could assemble. She sought out cinematographer Naiti Gámez, who despite initial wariness and having broken her knee ahead of shooting, was eventually so enamored by the kiki scene that she recruited her girlfriend to help her stay on her feet on set despite her crutches. Jordenö also recruited producers Lori Cheatle and Annika Rogell; it was, by design, an all-female affair. "It's actually quite radical that we had two female producers, two female directors of photography, and the sound person was female. I really think that made a difference. It was an intersectional feminist project."
Jordenö's intersectional politics helped her connect with those in the kiki community who, as the film shows, are as well-equipped to vogue and slay as they are to discuss society's structural biases against queer and trans people of color. As Gia Marie Love, a striking young woman whom we meet in the film both before and after her gender transition notes, the community they've created is a safe haven from the oppressive world around them. It has as much to do with high-spirited ballroom competition, where vogueing and dressing up allow participants to show their real selves, as with the comfort they feel when being around others who love them unconditionally. "You try to live in the heteronormative system and they don't work and they oppress you," as she put it in the film, "so why we don't just create our own systems?"
Kiki's political message surely reads differently today than when it screened at festivals last year. When I ask Jordenö how it feels to see this film's theatrical release amid a hostile political climate for trans youth (when we talked, neither of us had yet heard about the Trump administration's latest order to rescind protections for trans students, for example), she doesn't miss a beat. "I'm grateful. At first, I was angry, because I wanted it to come out—it's tricky to come out a year after. But now I'm like, 'Yes, this is the exact right time!' Because wherever we've been showing Kiki it seems to give people hope." When they showed it in San Francisco shortly after the Orlando shooting, she recalled, many audience members approached her to say a film like Kiki is exactly what the community needed to heal.
Despite being a document of the Obama era (the film shows Garçon visiting the White House as the former president espoused his commitment to LGBTQ rights), Kiki should serve as a template of how to organize and mobilize communities to help those most at-risk. As Garçon says in the film, "We still have to fight for our equality in the workplace and non-discrimination, we still have to fight LGBT homelessness, we still have to fight for trans rights. There's so much left." Society and pop culture may flippantly appropriate ballroom slang and gag over jaw-dropping death-drops, but there's plenty to be learned from these socially conscious activists. Not least the way they find light in the darkness. Jordenö puts its best, "There's this urgency and resilience, but there's also joy. They're not gonna be stopped."