Almost three decades after Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s seminal documentary on ballroom culture, New York City is still as perverse and paradoxical a stage for queer hardship and flamboyant liberation. The kiki scene as depicted in Sara Jordenö and Twiggy Pucci Garçon’s Kiki is a multi-purpose safe space where LGBTQ youth of color can, in addition to “walking” and “slaying,” get tested for HIV (some even become “health specialists”). When compared to the high-stakes dramas at the center of Paris Is Burning, where sex workers dreamed of becoming supermodels, Kiki feels rather tame. But when the documentary’s queens perform, the notion of voguing as an art form and survival strategy is just as mesmerizing as ever.
As a refuge for domestic and institutional abuse, the kiki houses are similar to the drag houses depicted in Paris Is Burning, though Kiki sadly refrains from thoroughly elaborating on the drag genealogical tree of each house. The horror of femininity in male bodies is, of course, cherished, cheered, and let loose. But we’re never quite sure who exactly is against whom, and whether the nasty competitiveness that gripped the ball scene in the late 1980s has been toned down by social-media exhibitionism or activist demands.
Jordenö and Garçon embrace a conventional cinematic approach, one in line with that of Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan’s recent documentary about Madonna’s former backup dancers, Strike a Pose. Kiki’s camera is consciously propped up for its confessional scenes, when it feels as if it should be in sync with the free-floating energy of its subjects. Paris Is Burning had plenty of talking heads, but there was always a sense throughout the film that the queens at its center were grabbing the camera by the balls, controlling it with the sharpness of their tongues and the most minute of “reads.”
When compared to the high-stakes dramas at the center of Paris Is Burning, Kiki feels rather tame.
Throughout Kiki, the documented performers feel obedient to the project, surrendering to a video language they’re so familiar with that they know exactly where to stand and how to convey a sense of maturity. The youths here feel almost psychoanalyzed. They’re so literate in the aesthetics of the documentary form, and so wise about social alienation and paradigm-defying gender identity, that there’s little for the camera to discover. The subjects of Paris Is Burning exuded, by contrast, the dangerous spontaneity of those who were being listened to for the very first time. But this is perhaps the cost of progress. After all, the peers glimpsed in this film are a far cry from the ones along which the queens of Livingston’s film worked and sometimes died.
Indeed, what a difference a few decades makes. The blueprint of the drag ball remains largely the same today, right down to the trophies that are awarded for all the kinship-making euphoria and spectacular femininity that deliciously runs amok on the runway. But the balls themselves are now more grown-up, well-contained affairs: the costumes are more sophisticated, the attendees more polite, and not all biological mothers are missing from the picture (some even bond with their children over the application of makeup). Yes, theatricality and fashion remain lifelines for terrorized gender non-conforming folks of color, but gone is the volcanically cutthroat atmosphere that made Paris Is Burning so urgent, ebullient, immersive, and fun.
It’s when the camera is content to simply watch queer bodies move in space that it does justice to the subject of voguing. As limbs flail gracefully, queerness is revealed as wonderfully unapologetic. Everyone’s tragic stories suddenly explode right before the viewer’s eyes. Throughout these spectacles of movement, voguing is finally understood as cathartic, a form of therapy, but also a means of mocking forms of oppression. These meaningful spasms recall Dogtooth’s most memorable scene, where two sisters who’ve been locked and abused within their own home all of their lives are allowed to dance. In this moment, the girls hold on to the opportunity with all their might, overcome by the fact that while the body often betrays, it never lies.