Interview: The art, dance, friendship and family of'Kiki'
Updated: Jul 28, 2020
Kiki is the hot new documentary about the New York ball scene. It took Berlin by storm earlier in the year, taking home the biggest prize in the world for queer documentary. It has since begun to tour the world, bringing its vibrant, colourful, energetic message of fierceness and community to audiences who now more than ever need something positive to latch on to.
When we reviewed Kiki at the Sydney Film Festival, we did so in the shadow of the Orlando tragedy in which 49 bright young souls were gunned down in a gay nightclub. Now on the eve of screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival, I got to speak to Kiki’s Swedish-born director Sara Jordenö, and the massacre is still very fresh in my mind. Alongside asking her about this, her filmmaking style as a first-time director, gaining the trust of her young subjects, and queer classic Paris is Burning.
The saying goes—it may have been RuPaul who started it, actually—that as gay people, we get to choose our family. Is this something that is at the heart of Kiki?
I would absolutely say that chosen families is a major theme in Kiki, but also about friendship and mentorship. I do not associate everything the people in Kiki do for each other as parenting. It is much more, and it also has to do with the kind of solidarity with a community that you see in many marginalised group. It is a survival strategy.
In the wake of the Orlando shootings, I felt your film took on an even greater significance and an even more heartbreaking poignancy. How have you found it continuing to take your film out on the road after this? Have you found it compounds the need for more films like Kiki to continue giving queer men and women, especial those of colour, a voice and a spotlight?
Absolutely. We heard many people say that watching a film like Kiki was just what they needed after Orlando. It was also personal for us, [the film’s co-creative force and lead subject] Twiggy lost a friend in the massacre, and it took place at a club where people were dancing and voguing. The people that were murdered there were youth of colour. It felt close to home.
We have also shown the film in San Francisco where we opened [queer film festival] Frameline for a 1,400 people audience at the Castro Theater and in LA where we showed it at the Ford Amphitheater for 1,200 people. And last week in Minneapolis at the Walker Art Center. It was so powerful to meet members of the community in those cities and there was a huge support for the film.
Did you want your film will be educational not just for straight audiences, but also other segments of the LGBTIQ+ audience whom are far removed from this part of queer life?
Absolutely. We are a very segregated community. I think what sets Kiki apart from other films is that it is essentially a hopeful film. And we can see the great need for that, both for the communities it concerns, but also to invoke allyship. I feel the LGBTQ movement at large has issues with race, with class, with femininity vs masculinity as an ideal. I want the film to make people want to act, and I have heard people in the audience who are not part of those communities feeling inspired to get more involved.
I am curious as to your filming style as a first-time documentarian. Do you embed yourself with your subjects and into their world, or did you try to separate yourself and merely act as an observer?
I feel like observation can be very intimate. If I would describe my method as a filmmaker, I would say that I listened very closely. From that listening came a dialogue with the community and from that knowledge came the ideas how to visualise the film. There was this fear that images would take over, and the film would just evolve around spectacle. So I was afraid of the images at first, but then, of course, this artform is so spectacular and that is also important to tell. That said, I was very immersed in the Kiki world, which made people respect me more and we are very close in the team. We could not have created this film if I did not immerse myself completely, and I would not have been let in if it would not have been a co-writing process with Twiggy Pucci Garcon.
How did you get them to open up so much? Was it easy to gain their trust considering how often LGBTIQ+ people are used as cultural and political footballs.
It was very difficult. Making Kiki was very, very hard, but our ideas were aligned and everyone involved in the film joined forces to make it happen, including the subjects in the film. There was a strong desire to get these stories out, and I am very thankful that people opened up so much. It was a long process.
How conscious were you of the fact that many people would compare your film to Paris is Burning while making it? Did you study that film? What other texts – whether that be film or books or anything else – did you look at before diving into this world of New York’s ball scene?
Of course. I know Paris is Burning inside and out. I knew it would be a reference, of course. Paris is Burning documents the ballroom scene in the 1980s, when many of the people in our film were not even born, but it is still one of the first films they watch when they learn about the scene. I had an academic understanding of the ballroom scene when I entered it through readings of Paris is Burning and through queer theory that I studied in the 1990s. But what felt more important was to get close to the scene without that filter. As I stated earlier, listening to the experiences and views of the people in the scene was essential to me. They felt strongly their stories had not been represented with nuance in any film before. So I was listening to the text that is ballroom culture and kiki scene culture, I paid close attention.
As a filmmaker I am inspired by Fred Wiseman’s films. It might not be an obvious reference that people see in the film, for example in those films you never have these reflexive and staged shots of the subjects looking back at the audience in long takes that we use in Kiki. Wiseman is terrific at listening and portraying places and communities, he works slow, takes his time, I was very inspired by that. Other important references are Marlon Rigg’s Tongues Untied, where the historic footage in Kiki is taken from. Isaac Julien and Cheryl Dunye, they are very important references and inspirations.
At the Sydney screening of Kiki, a questioner asked about the issue of potential exploitation, which is something Jeannie Livingston has faced in the decades since Paris is Burning was released. How are you using Kiki to give back to the scene?
There are many ways the film gives back, I think. Kiki is a love letter to the scene, and I have been told it does service to the community. We are also working on an outreach program and would love to be able to work with the organisations for LGBTQ youth that we already have been in dialogue for years: HMI, The Door, Callen Lourde, Faces NY and many more.
As for the question in Sydney, it was about money. I feel like people are focusing on money, and that is understandable, but that is not everything a film contributes. But to be transparent: Twiggy and I worked with the producers to set up a contract so a percentage of any profit the film generates would be given to the kiki community. We did this after consulting leaders in the scene and the CBOs that support it.