‘Kiki’ Takes the Pulse of New York’s Ballroom Culture


A street sign, quickly glimpsed in the first few minutes of Kiki, Sara Jordenö’s adroit documentary on the new generation of those in the ballroom and voguing scenes, nimbly serves as cultural, historical, and geographic semaphore. Two of the young people featured in Jordenö’s chronicle — most of whom are in their teens and twenties, and are black or Latinx and gay or trans — stop at the corner of Christopher and Hudson streets in the West Village, an intersection that has been officially known since 2005 as Sylvia Rivera Way. The crossing’s namesake, who died in 2002, was a transgender activist and co-founder, in 1970, of STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). The spot is roughly equidistant from two landmarks of the LGBTQ movement: The Stonewall Inn sits two blocks to the east; the Christopher Street piers, three to the west.

I mention all this because that flash of street signage signals part of what Jordenö successfully — and non-didactically — communicates in Kiki: the gradual acknowledgment of queer and trans history in the city (and elsewhere) over the past decade or so, a history continuously being made and remade by the adolescents and young adults whom she filmed between 2012 and 2015. Kiki is an update of sorts on Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning, a canonical portrait of New York ball culture in the 1980s that endures, though not without complications, as an essential investigation of queerness, race, class, and stardom — and a work that noticeably goes unmentioned in Jordenö’s film. For all its significance, a taint of “exploitation” and “voyeurism” has clung to Paris Is Burning over the past quarter-century (several principals in the film sued Livingston’s production company after Paris was released in 1991). Born in Sweden and currently based in New York, Jordenö, like Livingston, is a white cis queer woman, but she preempts the charges that have bedeviled the Paris director; Kiki is much more of a collaboration between filmmaker and subjects than its predecessor.

Through an earlier project, Jordenö met Chi Chi Mizrahi and Twiggy Pucci Garçon, luminaries of the kiki (ballroom argot meaning “to have a good time”) scene, who, crucially, invited her to film their milieu; Pucci Garçon has a co-writing credit on the film. There is no voiceover narration, and intertitles are used sparingly. Kiki demands that its audience pay attention and listen to its seven main interlocutors, who, in addition to Mizrahi and Pucci Garçon, include Gia Marie Love (shown before and after her transition), the speaker of the film’s most sobering assessment: “Our community is on very intimate terms with death.” In workshops, at home, at the piers and other places, interviewees discuss high rates of HIV infection and suicide; in other colloquies, kiki kids reveal virulently disapproving parents and long episodes of homelessness. These brutal truths inform celebrations taking place in various drop-ceilinged spots throughout the five boroughs: voguing competitions in which the dizzying finesse of rapidly moving limbs matches the élan of ball-culture nomenclature (House of Unbothered-Cartier, Opulent Haus of P.U.C.C.I., to name two favorites). Yet Jordenö, in a recurring motif, honors the kiki denizens the most when she captures them motionless, staring directly into the camera, regal and indefatigable.

Directed by Sara Jordenö
Sundance Selects
Opens March 1, IFC Center