It’s easy to call “Kiki” the 2016 “Paris is Burning.” There are similar scenes in “Kiki” of voguing and shit-talking down at the Chelsea piers that harken back to the ones that made Venus Xtravaganza an icon in Jennie Livingston’s groundbreaking 1990 documentary. The two films share a subject matter and approach in their ethnographic looks into the voguing ballroom scene in New York City, and the ways in which queer kids, specifically queer youth of color, discover their chosen families. However, there are a few key differences, and probably the most important one is right at the beginning of the film. It’s the credit reading “a film by Sara Jordenö and Twiggy Pucci Garçon.” Jordenö is the Swedish filmmaker who directed “Kiki,” and Twiggy is one of the film’s subjects, an activist and gatekeeper in the ball scene who shepherded Jordenö’s access and has a co-writing credit. This creator credit is important — it shows just how crucial this access is for a filmmaker, and gives respect where it’s due.
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There are a few other ways in which the films are different — there’s less of an emphasis on explaining lingo and social structure (though there is some of that), and more of a focus on activism and the importance of self-organization for these kids in a city stricken by income inequality and dwindling services for LGBT youth of color. There’s a 26-year gap between the two films, and it’s shocking that these kids face many of the same problems — homelessness, violence, suicide, homophobia. But that’s why the ball scene remains such a vital part of their world.
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But “Kiki” is also a film that stands on its own, with subjects who are incredibly smart, open, and eloquent in expressing their personal histories and current situations. Twiggy is a quiet and noble leader, a house mother and organizer in his community, which translates into activism work on the part of homeless LGBT youth. One of the breakout stars is Gia Marie Love, a trans woman and a former high-school debate champ, who succinctly offers up insightful sound bites that are raw, honest and informed, whether she’s analyzing what the marriage-equality victory means for her community, or defending the choices of trans sex workers. In one of her more memorable moments, she clearly describes the way that heteronormative systems are oppressive to LGBT people, which is why they create and seek solace and fellowship within their own systems, such as the ball scene.
These more reflective scenes are interspersed with and laid over the wild and vibrant scenes of the balls, filled with fantastical costumes and dance, lit by the fluorescent overhead lights of the school gyms in which they take place. There’s a sense of controlled chaos to the balls, with MCs and judges reining in the wild abandon of voguing and death-dropping on the dance floor. As underground and DIY as the kiki scene might be, it’s still highly organized, and part of what “Kiki” expresses is this community organization as a strategy for survival. The struggle is real, and it’s hard to imagine how they keep pushing that boulder up the hill — being fully themselves in the face of so much hardship — but they are tough, and united.
The film falters a bit in the way in the inconsistent way in which it introduces or doesn’t introduce subjects onscreen. It can be a bit confusing when we spend a lot of intimate time with a person but don’t get their name. Some of the structure with the many different subjects feels fumbled, but there are several more personalities we spend time with, including the energetic, effusive Chi Chi Mizrahi, another leader in the scene; and the young, gorgeous trans woman Zariya, whom Chi Chi takes under his wing while she struggles to find her home as a woman.
Aside from following the subjects through their lives and talking-heads interviews, director Jordenö effectively uses a few stylistic motifs throughout “Kiki.” Filmed portraits of the subjects are arresting moments of stillness, and she stages gorgeously filmed and artfully lit sequences of the voguers dancing on a stage that distinguish their art from the pier or the ball or the subway platform. Yet the moments when they dance in public are equally as powerful; young Chris dances in front of the barbershop, that local bastion of masculinity, after he describes the difficulty of coming out to his father.
There is a bit of audience longing for more dance, more fun, more of the excellent music by Qween Beat, more trash talk and lingo, but “Kiki” doesn’t offer up the fun without the realities that these youth face. Kiki and ballroom and voguing isn’t just a pastime; it’s a cultural form derived from groups of LGBT people of color who have had to create their own families, clubs, and societies when they weren’t accepted in others. “Kiki” never lets you forget that, and never fails to pay homage to the past historical context of the scene while looking towards its future. [B+]