New York Ball Culture Death Drops Back Into Mainstream with ‘Kiki’

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More than a quarter century after the iconic Paris is Burning introduced the world to Harlem’s vibrant drag and vogue scene, New York ball culture has “sashay, shantayed” back into the limelight with Swedish documentary filmmaker and visual artist, Sara Jordenö’s Kiki. The film chronicles the Kiki scene embedded within the wider ballroom subculture of New York through the stories of LGBTQ+ youth-of-color.

Just as in Paris is Burning there are houses, tight-knit families of ball performers who operate under the guidance of housemothers. The House of Pucci, Unbothered Cartier, and Pink Lady are just a few of the groups that give life to these kiki balls via lively dance-offs, fierce competition, and spirited comradery.  The community has moved downtown to the Christopher Street Pier, a stone’s throw from the LGBTQ+ movement’s explosive beginnings at the Stonewall Inn. Flamboyant routines and public displays of voguing are set in stark juxtaposition to the gentrified West Village neighborhood and its predominantly white inhabitants.

There is no questioning that LGBTQ+ teens of color are one of the most marginalized and at-risk communities in the United States. Homelessness, homophobia, transphobia, abuse, and depression as well as staggering HIV infection statistics, which suggest 3 out of 5 individuals could end up positive, are all issues that these young people are forced to endure. The kiki scene is a direct response and intervention to these concerns. It is a grassroots, youth-led collective seeking to tackle issues of homelessness and disproportionate health crises through programming and educating all while providing a safe space of love and acceptance.

Sara Jordenö’s decision to team up with the documentary’s co-writer Twiggy Pucci Garçon, a prominent member the kiki community and housemother, is a mark of representational authoring that Jennie Livingston’s Paris Burning lacks. Kiki digs below the glittery surface of colorful outfits, throbbing music, and jaw-dropping dance moves. It is as much about activism as it is entertainment and fun.

Jordenö and Garçon manage to negotiate the inherent politics of the narrative with impressive ease. Without pontificating Kiki makes a clear point that marriage equality was a gay, white middle-class initiative and critiques the lack of visibility for concerns LGBTQ+ teens of color constantly face. Testimonials from the seven individuals featured in the documentary reveal hardships of coming to terms with sexuality and gender and the risks at stake with coming out to friends and family. Beyond emotional and psychological damage resulting from lack of social acceptance, there is also the need to survive. Homophobia and transphobia are manifested in discriminatory employment practices and equal access leading many young trans people into prostitution to pay for basic needs and costly hormone treatments.

From the film ‘Kiki’ by Sara Jordenö and Twiggy Pucci Garçon

Particularly heartening about the documentary is how far many people have come with their attitudes to gay and trans individuals. Following Gia Marie Love’s decision to transition, her mother calling her sexy and her brother labeling her a role model offer uplifting, albeit rare reactions that indicate a sea-change in sentiments towards trans individuals. However, there is still work to be done and policies to be changed as Garçon and fellow housemother Chi Chi Mizrahi acknowledge after their trip to the White House.

An underlying sense of defiance and liberation is captured in the beautifully interwoven footage of staged and impromptu performances. Where Paris is Burning was all about aesthetics and “realness” [the act of being able to convincingly pass], Kiki instead gravitates toward advocacy and awareness.

Kiki premieres in theaters February 24, 2017.

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