Although it took four years to make, Sara Jordenö sounds as if she feels her debut, “Kiki,” about the ballroom scene initiated by LGBTQ youth in New York’s West Village, is coming out at just the right cultural moment.
“All these developments, like the increased visibility and the more nuanced discussion around people with trans experience that Janet Mock and Laverne Cox and all these people have brought forward — we saw that happen,” says Jordenö, coming off an additional year of traveling with the film during its celebrated festival run. “And it’s interesting because I remember back in 2012, it really wasn’t so in the same way.”
It’s quite likely “Kiki” will push that discussion even further, fueled by the passion and energy of the community it chronicles. With a filmmaker’s eye and a sociologist’s intuition owing to her long-held interest in marginalized communities, Jordeno boldly enters the Kiki scene where the personal and political are inextricably intertwined in “voguing,” the dance that gives gay and transgender youth, primarily African-Americans, a movement quite literally in the form of physical expression to share their joy and desire to stand tall in public, but also as a collective that can take on the major issues they face in terms of representation, health care and – with many homeless – combating poverty.
Divided into different teams known as houses in preparation for ballroom competitions, the Kiki scene is a world unto itself and yet in following the stories of three of its most prominent practioners – Twiggy Pucci Garçon, Gia Marie Love and Chi Chi Mizrahi – Jordenö beautifully conveys how both the compassion within and the fear from outside that sphere has emboldened them to lead their lives proudly and empower those around them. Naturally, as the film begins to make its way into theaters across the country, it does so with a strut and Jordenö spoke about making such a confident first feature, forging a true partnership with the community she was making the film about and how she could visually depict the dignity that she felt that they have been deprived of in past media representation.
It was over five years ago now that I met Twiggy Garcon and Chi Chi Mizrahi, but by chance. I was working on another project and I met these fantastic people and we really did hit it off. It was interesting because they set up a formal meeting with me and [said,] “we heard you were a filmmaker and an artist and we wanted to see if you wanted to do a project with us [on] the Kiki scene.” I was just immersed in the scene and Twiggy came on as a co-writer because we felt it was important to do a combination of an insider/outsider perspective, so it was intense, but it was an invitation, which never happened to me before – an invitation that came with both a lot of freedom and a lot of responsibility.
Was that kind of partnership unusual for you?
This is my first documentary feature, but I worked as a visual artist for 16 years [where] I do projects with communities using documentary film techniques. I work with criminologists and sociologists, so it’s like the work I’d been doing before, but this was more challenging. In terms of the amount of years and intensity of working on it, this was the biggest project I’ve done, but I think that that’s why they liked me. I can’t speak for them, but I come from a fine arts angle, but I never used my studio much. I always liked being out. [laughs] I liked the social part.
One of the things that’s so great about this is how you take the film into the streets – you show Kiki as a way of life. Was that an obvious decision from the start?
It reflected the kind of real conversations that I had because I was hanging out for a while before we started really filming anything. They’re protective of themselves, but it’s also a very, very open, talking community. I’m a visual artist, but I was also very influenced by someone like [Frederick] Wiseman and just filming a lot to see what you can capture. I wanted a very intimate film, but then the cinematographer [Naiti Gamez] and I also wanted to work with stylized shots, so it’s a mix of those two – being a fly on the wall with being very stylized, but that’s true to the community. Documentary is always a construction, but I feel if we cut it up in a way that somehow the truth can speak through the construction.
As far the style was concerned, shooting on the RED seems to be a big decision in giving the film a certain grandeur.
Yeah, we could shoot everything on the RED. When I was able to get funding and the producers came on, the cinematographer and I were talking about how we wanted to work with those stylized shots because we wanted to give the [subjects] production value, but also to slow things down because voguing is a form of language. It’s how people speak with their bodies, but it’s so fast that sometimes you can’t see it. You have to have a trained eye to see all the various elements of vogue. It’s a very, very complicated art form. It has its own performance art history they’re referring to in their performances, so we wanted to slow things down and get something more poetic. From the beginning, I also wanted to do something about the portraiture [of the artform], so that’s where the shots where the subjects in the film are looking back [at the audience] – I wanted them to look back at the viewer because if you’re too much at a distance, it’s like [someone] says in the film, everyone makes the LGBTQ inner city youth of color out to be the same — they’re all treated by police and others as one big group and they don’t get to be individuals. There’s prejudice around who they are and what they can become, so that’s why it felt important to get that look back.
Besides Twiggy, how’d you gravitate towards Gia Marie Love and Chi Chi Mizrahi as the central figures in this?
Twiggy is a gatekeeper, so he gave me access to everything and people started seeing who I was. Then I just went to everything – to practice for the balls to [community] meetings and that’s where I met those people. Chi Chi was one of the first people I met, but Gia, I remember, was at a meeting for [The Hetrick-Martin Institute, an advocacy organization for LGBTQ youth]. The Kiki scene has its own governance and she was at one of those meetings in early 2012. I told Twiggy, “She’s so fantastic!” and I really followed her for a while. She was really in transition in her political development as a spokesperson for people of trans experience. We get this question a lot why we chose these characters, but there’s many, many fantastic people in the Kiki scene. These were the people I was able to follow for a long time, [because it] felt very important that it was a character-driven film, so we wanted that intensity of basically see people grow up into themselves, into their truth.
It was a very transparent, collaborative film process with the community and at one of our first screenings with the leaders with the Kiki scene, they said they really like the film and they were so happy that we didn’t just film a ball. Of course, we see the balls and that’s where people actualize and celebrate themselves and their journeys, but what’s really important for me, the cast and the larger community is that we see nuanced characters and that’s not taken away just by focusing on the art form, which often happens. Then people just want to see that – they don’t see the other side, which is the backstories and why these people come to ballroom and what ballroom means in their own development.
Voguing is not just a dance, you know? It’s completely different when people teach voguing now to someone that doesn’t have the experience of the group of kids that are part of the culture that created it. Someone that was part of the community a long time ago said, “When they hurt us, we vogued.” This person was talking about being rejected in many ways and the intersection of oppression that exists — racism, homophobia, transphobia and I think a deep-seated misogyny that also affects people that [exude] femininity even if they’re biological males — and how they didn’t break [their] spirit — “We just went to vogue.” I thought that was really nice. You can see that still, but it’s also a big fuck you. It’s not about victimhood, especially this new generation. Things are better and there’s a discourse and a very strong sense that we’re not going to be marginalized anymore.
What’s it been like traveling with the film for the past year?
Insane. For all of us, it was a first time experience. I showed at some film festivals before, but not Sundance and Berlin, and we liked to go together as a team, but sometimes it was like we just didn’t have time, so we had to divide it up and Chris would go to Hong Kong, I would go to Sydney, Twiggy went to Mexico City and Chi Chi got to go accept an award in Germany and it just continues. It was so rewarding. It’s such a privilege. We opened Framline in San Francisco and there were 1400 people and in L.A., we had a fantastic opening as well at the Ford Ampitheater for 1200 people. I’m very concerned about the recent [political] developments and the rolling back of transgender rights, so I feel and I hope our film will, in that context, give people hope and also offer another perspective on whatever alternative truth they’re trying to create.