Sara Jordenö’s Kiki is an energetic yet sobering documentary set in the New York City ballroom circuit, an event-driven scene frequented by African-American and Latino LGBTQ communities. Comprised of loving and sensitive portraits of a handful of individuals, it is a bittersweet reminder of the need for creative outlets and safe spaces in which oppressed peoples can flourish. We caught up with Jordenö to discuss how she navigated this world in creating the film, and the collaborations made along the way.
I wanted to kick things off by asking about how you came to have the relationship you’ve had with the Kiki scene in New York, and ended up living in the city – as a filmmaker initially from Sweden?
See, I lived in the US before I moved back to Sweden. I first moved there in 2000, and I do have an American family. I’ve done many projects in the US, I’ve done projects in New York City before, and I lived there at the time that we met the leaders of the Kiki scene. It wasn’t like I was just some Swedish tourist who stumbled into a ball or something, that wasn’t the case. I was working on a project and then I met Twiggy PucciGarçon and Chichi Mizrahi and we really hit it off, and there was this kind of magic that happened – they set up a meeting with me and asked me if I wanted to make a project. I was also given a lot of artistic freedom in making this project. They kind of brought me into the Kiki scene and introduced me to everybody and that’s how it happened.
I didn’t know that Ballroom was still going on. I knew about the scene in the 80s through Queer Theory. I knew it on an academic level, just by being queer in the 80s and 90s, but I didn’t know that it was much more complex, and that it also has existed in New York for over 100 years. And I didn’t know about this new generation, which is the Kiki scene, for the youth, which is a scene that’s roughly 11 years old.
I guess that’s one of the interesting things about the way the 80s manifested, with theory kind of disseminating it across an academic landscape… I remember reading this back and forth between Judith Butler and Bell Hooks over Paris is Burning, with so much built around that film – and it’s been interesting reading a lot of criticism around Kiki, because Paris is Burning seems to be this sole reference point for a lot of film critics. I feel there’s been a lot of reviews that have framed Kiki as this sort of “sequel” to Jenny Livingstone’s film, which after watching Kiki I found kind of odd; since the films are very distinct from one another in content, engagement and style. I’m interested in how, with the creative freedom you were given, you wanted to make Kiki in a certain way?
I think that Paris is Burning is going to be a reference point for the outside world, you know? And in one of the criticisms, one of the critics wrote about in one of the reviews…. they also mentioned The Queen, which is also a very important film, which you can see happened 22 years ago – I think it’s ’671 – so it happened in a way where you can see these historical precedents. In a way then, people are going to reference Paris is Burning because it’s a historical precedent of Kiki and it gives a historical view on the community. But it’s different people and I also think the scene has changed a lot. The way that we wanted to do the film, I think… it’s a very intimate film, and it’s done with a combination of an outsider and an insider perspective. I resisted a lot in making it explain. I didn’t want to explain it to an audience that was then positioned as an outside audience. I’m very interested in indirect cinema and I wanted it to somehow… I did not want it to be explaining. I think it’s because that I was writing it together with Twiggy… that has done something to it. We spent a lot of time… it does not just show the balls. It goes pretty deep in documenting these 7 people’s journeys – and people were willing to share; and that is how the scene has changed. One of the things you see is that this young generation, this Kiki scene, is that they understand the value of talking about the oppression – but also the joy. They’re coaching and encouraging each other a lot, so it’s that; but they’re also sharing the oppression and the very difficult things that they go through. And they do that because it’s healing for them. And I think that’s new in the community.
The ballroom community in the 80s, that was a very difficult time, and it was a very difficult time to be gay and trans – so maybe, also, people weren’t willing to go there as much. I’m sure there will be some criticism of our film, but one of the things that I’m very, very happy about is that we did a community screening. Our screening in New York at Tiatro at the Museo del Barrio – and there was a lot of the community there. There were some old generation people there like, Junior LaBeija was there – you know, the MC from Paris is Burning. And there were also important people now from the mainstream ballroom scene like Jack Mizrahi. And yeah… it was a very positive response.
One of the big things you’ve mentioned is that process of collaboration in getting something to involve the community a lot more – and I think that’s something I definitely found throughout Kiki. The film was less concerned with displaying just the excitement or flair of a ball in isolation, and there were so many of these reflective scenes. I think one of the scenes that really stuck with me was when Gia got into a confrontation on the street and the film cut to a shot of her staring directly at the audience, breaking the pace really suddenly, but in this confronting, powerful, and affecting way. I was curious as to where that idea came from?
The film is about portraiture, and throughout the film we asked people to meet the gaze of the audience – and that goes throughout. I feel there’s an aesthetic choice, there’s a pause, like a cinematic choice or an editing choice, but I also feel like these people… there needs to be a looking back; a return of this gaze. You know, not to say that when they’re standing there, there’s a portraiture — of course we’re looking at them. But there is something… I see as both a vulnerability but also a resistance. Like, they’re able to return your gaze. They’re extremely strong, you know, they’re strong as fuck, as Twiggy says. And they were aware of the film we were doing. It wasn’t that we had a discussion around what that was often; “what is this shot” or anything. But when we were doing the film, we were in the meetings – because the community has its own governance with meetings — and we were explaining what we were trying to do, and I think that’s why people are comfortable looking back. I think that it challenges the audience to think a little more about the kind of projections they make onto this group, because they get a lot of projections onto them: by police, by everybody. ‘Cause they’re not only LGBTQ, they’re also youths of colour, so there’s a lot of prejudice about who they are.
I think one of the big criticisms around Paris is Burning was on an ethical level of how a documentary interacts with the people it’s interviewing – and the argument of whether the film is benefiting the community it’s looking at. I was interested in how you approached this in making Kiki, and how you navigated that process of working with people in a comparably less privileged position?
They were very generous, they were educating me… so of course there was a process and it’s still going on, as it should for any person who has white privilege. It’s an ongoing interrogation to check on your privilege. It’s also something I felt I had to take care of myself. Like, they shouldn’t have to hear about that. It’s my process and it’s work that I have to do. If they want to, like there were a lot of people in the community that helped me with that and continue to help me with that. You just have to be humble, you know. There’s a lot of work to do, and it doesn’t end – and you shouldn’t fall into a trap of feeling sorry for yourself because it’s not about that, it’s about understanding. It’s about looking at the margins, because they’re in the margins, and understanding that position in society – but there’s something to learn from, there’s community building to learn from and I feel I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve been empowered by it. I think it helps that I’m Swedish – that I’m white, but I’m not a white American, I think that helps, because there is that history… but I still have white privilege. It also helps that I’m queer as well, and it helps that I’m a woman.
I wanted to ask about how you came into contact with MikeQ and the rest of Qween Beat, who ended up soundtracking the film, and how you kind of worked with the group, and how the process of soundtracking the documentary worked with such a typically energetic sound?
Well, I met Mike earlier in the process… he was the DJ at a ball that Twiggy and I organised called The Reincarnation of Rockland Palace, which is in the film as well. But I noticed the music right from the beginning. I was at a practice and for a lot of the kids he’s the main DJ, and Qween Beat, and Byrell the Great… they make the music that people dance to at the balls, and MikeQ is the resident DJ of Vogue Knights. So I noticed the music and very quickly we started talking about working together. And I feel like the music is this additional text; this layer of the film. It’s extremely important. And the way that the MC and the DJ and the performer are in this symbiosis in the way they react to each other, it’s very important in the scene and at the balls.
But then we needed some calmer music, and I remember I was talking to Mike about that. I mean, it was wonderful to edit too also… like there’s such a good beat. So it’s very powerful music, but you need some calmer music and I was like “Mike, do you do any calmer music” and he was like “no” – but then he was in contact with Amorpheus, who is a young composer, who has done the more calmer music. He was 17 then, but he loved MikeQ and had sent him a Soundcloud. That’s how I met Amorpheus, and he’s also this young genius. I don’t know… they were very involved. We were talking a lot about the music, and the appropriate music and things – and we’re releasing a soundtrack too!
The way in which you’ve covered and interacted with the Kiki community, I’m interested in what you’re planning on doing next with your own filmmaking career, but also your engagement with this kind of scene?
Well, I’m not going anywhere. I’m part of the community, my kid is named as a Kiki name. I feel very connected and want to continue to work with the outreach portion, I never want to lose contact with the community. I think with the film, I’m never going to make a part two. It’s finished and it’s a contribution. That stands for its own, even if I — on a private level, a personal level — continue to be a part of that community and an ally to that community, and whatever they do next.
I’m working on some new projects. They’re also community portraits, but they’re quite different. One is about a factory town in northern Sweden. It’s about a small community where the main industry is closing down, and that change. The other one concerns refugees; unaccompanied minors who have found themselves in a rural area in Sweden. I’m very interested in community portraits and different strategies that communities take. But also, I’m interested in how the world projects an image onto a community, and how that community kind of fights back.