Kiki is in a weird spot. As a documentary about the Kiki scene, a youthful section of New York City’s drag ball culture, it will almost certainly be compared to Paris Is Burning in every single review. This is, in many ways, unfair. Jennie Livingston’s classic of New Queer Cinema has become a cultural phenomenon, much more than a documentary for many of its fans. Yet at the same time, Swedish filmmaker Sara Jordenö’s debut feature may actually end up profiting from the comparison. Hopefully, lasting interest in the older film will drive new viewers to Kiki. And, more interestingly, Jordenö shows great skill in the area where Livingston also accomplished the most: portraiture.
Kiki is about the communal strength that comes from embracing difference. Like Livingston, Jordenö is very interested in character. This begins with her principal subject and collaborator, Twiggy Pucci Garçon. A leader in the community, active in the ballroom scene and an advocate for homeless LGBTQ youth, Twiggy is the gatekeeper and guide through whom Jordenö presents the Kiki scene. His friend and collaborator Chi Chi Mizrahi is another primary subject, along with many other staples of the ballroom world.
Everyone is hard to quickly classify, which is essentially the point. This community, made up of LGBTQ people of color in a city with a notoriously brutal police force, has a lot of problems. In the context of AIDS and HIV, the frequent rejection of society and family, hate crimes and everything else, the business of living is a full time job. Twiggy and Chi Chi are artists as well as activists, participating in a scene where those two things are frequently one and the same calling.
The drag balls underline this holistic, artistic identity. As one of Jordenö’s subjects explains, walking the runway is “telling a story.” It’s presenting yourself in all of your glory and saying, “I am beautiful.” It is, in a sense, an art of living self-portraiture. Kiki is, therefore, an assembly of portraits. This is most obvious in the case of Gia Marie Love, the woman at the thematic center of the film. She is a transgender woman, but Jordenö doesn’t build her into a linear narrative of transition. Rather, she first introduces Gia as an activist and artist and then later uses a series of moving portraits that chart her shifting public image. These shots, a staple of nonfiction cinema, a conscious and thematically motivated gesture in Kiki. The film is full of similar portrait shots, the subject looking directly into the camera. Many aren’t even principle subjects. Their images further this interpretation of the Kiki world as a place of self-assurance. It is a community built upon the idea of individuality.
This defies society’s prejudices. When it comes to the police, for example, “they treat us all like the same person.” Self-portraiture and pride, when it can lead to being kicked out of your home or refused a job, becomes an act of both empowerment and defiance. In Kiki, this also involves quite a bit of political activism. Jordenö includes a meeting of the Kiki Coalition, an organization of groups such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the Hetrick-Martin Institute and others that promote HIV/AIDS testing and education, transgender rights, ending LGBTQ homelessness, and other community issues. This is a new dimension, at least when comparing Kiki to Paris Is Burning. The Kiki scene still hangs out at the Chelsea Piers, but now the vogueing is mixed with talk of organizing for the reelection of President Obama. Related to his work fighting LGBTQ homelessness, Twiggy gets an invitation to the White House for a reception honoring LGBTQ activism. That all of this would have been inconceivable in 1990 goes without saying.
The language has also changed. The discourses around sex work and transgender identity stand out in particular. Jordenö features a number of organized discussions, not just of political issues but also of personal ones. At one point Gia leads a conversation about the relationship between sex work and transgender identity, stressing that no one should judge someone else’s transition, no matter what path they’ve taken.
All of this political discourse does take some of the artistic fire out of Kiki. There are occasional moments of theatrical fantasy, but they don’t have quite the same thrill as those in recent documentaries like Mala Mala or Actress, for example. Like fellow Sundance debut Plaza de la Soledad, much of its running time is spent on listening to its subjects. Yet Jordenö understands that her greatest strength is the way that her subjects presents themselves, and the aesthetic choice to highlight portraiture is what elevates this particular film over other community-focused documentaries. Kiki is a smart, confident debut and a real credit to its polyphonic subject.