“When all else fails and you long to be, something better than you are today, I know a place where you can get away, it's called a dance floor, and here's what it's for, so, come on, vogue…”
Madonna’s mega-stardom has a great deal to do with her savvy soaking up of the vibrantly creative counter cultures then thriving in New York City when she jumped ship from Bay City, Michigan in 1977, adopting the looks, moves and grooves surrounding her, chameleon-like.
Her music video for 1990 hit single ‘Vogue’ beamed the dramatic freeze-frame, magazine cover poses of the voguing style burning up the city’s vibrant drag balls of the '80s into homes worldwide.
But the real forces behind that ballroom scene, largely driven by transgender people of colour, seized their own spotlight with the release of documentary filmmaker Jennie Livingston’s seminal cultural time capsule Paris is Burning.
Almost 30 years later, Swedish filmmaker Sara Jordenö returns to Harlem and the West Village’s Christopher Street Pier with dazzling doco Kiki and finds a new generation sadly facing many of the same hurdles, but similarly using dance and stylish solidarity as a means to rise above rejection and bigotry.
Featuring eye-popping dance battles between magnificently monikered fashion-themed ‘Houses’ – including House of Juicy Couture and House of Unbothered Cartier – there’s some truly mind-blowing moves on show, eliciting a visceral thrill.
Black, queer and trans lives matter
The kikis aren’t just a joyous creative outlet, they’re also a means of coming together that provides the safety of chosen family for many kids who have no support at home, or sometimes no home at all.
Filmed over the course of three years, and co-written with Kiki luminary Twiggy Pucci Garcon, the doco is a fascinating insight into LGBTIQ young people at the intersection of race, sexuality, gender, colour. Every bit the valuable social commentary as its spiritual forebear Paris is Burning, Kiki goes beyond the ballroom scene and the meet ups at the pier, highlighting the very real problems faced by these young people, from racism and homophobia to a rising HIV infection rate, from the pressures of sex work to those of drug addiction. It also highlights the financial difficulty of gender transitioning.
As wild fun as they are, the Kiki balls also create a network that not only allows teenagers and twenty-something’s to find strength and moral support in one another, but also hooks them up to much-needed frontline services, while sending a message to audiences too that help is out there.
What was won can be lost
With much of the film shot in 2012, as Barack Obama was running for his second term against Republican challenger Mitt Romney, Kiki carries a valuable political message too that applies globally – hard-won rights for LGBTIQ people can be wound back.
Jordenö’s doco shows how political upheaval affects those on the outskirts directly. It’s made clear that a Republican win poses a very real risk frontline services aimed at LGBTIQ people will be defunded, including support for drug addiction, people living with HIV, those who are gender transitioning and for young people living on the streets, with many of the Kiki kids having fled fractious family backgrounds.
Not that they are taking anything lying down, with Kiki’s heroes including vocal activists and incredible mentors, even making it all the way to Obama’s White House after his second victory as inspiring as they all are, it’s hard not to watch Kiki through the prism of Trump’s ascendancy and wonder just how tough they’re doing it now, and what they will face in the future.
Not that Kiki’s all about politics, and even when it is, it’s a seriously sassy brand. The film is first and foremost a joyous celebration of individuality and the desire to stand out from the crowd in the most marvelous way, most notably in the lovingly crafted costumes that the kids pour their souls into. No look is too much, and that maelstrom of artistry unbound is just as present in the painstakingly put together choreography and accompanying musical arrangements. Put simply, it’s an impossible task to watch Kiki and not wanna gear up and get down.
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Sunday 23 February, 10:20PM on NITV (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Sweden, USA, 2016
Director: Sara Jordenö
What's it about?
25 years after Paris is Burning, we dive back into the fierce world of voguing battles in the Kiki scene of New York City, where competition between Houses demands leadership, painstaking practice, and performances on point. A film collaboration between Kiki gatekeeper, Twiggy Pucci Garçon, and Swedish filmmaker Sara Jordenö, we’re granted exclusive access into this high stakes world, where tough competitions act as a gateway into the daily lives of LGBTQ youth of color in NYC.