Director of ‘Kiki’ Sara Jordeno talks to Manuela Leigh about her introduction to the ballroom scene and her endeavours in telling the true stories of some of the LGBTQI dancers and activists.
From the early 90’s, drag ballroom has been a transformative art celebrated by LGBTQI communities in New York City. Today, the Kiki scene is a vibrant and safe place for LGBTQI youth to come together in celebration of ballroom culture.
Premiering at Sundance in 2016, Sara Jordeno’s documentary ‘Kiki’, in collaboration with ballroom dancer Twiggy Pucci Garçon, captures the world of ballroom competitions which currently serve as a platform to host conversations within the Black and Trans Lives Matter movements.
Can you tell me about the genesis of Kiki? How did you meet Twiggy, and come together to tell this story?
I met Twiggy Pucci Garcon and Chi Chi Mizrahi when working on another project in Harlem. It was a very dark project, and it was also a difficult time in my life. I was thinking a lot about what makes a family. Twiggy and Chi Chi introduced me to the exuberant and artistic space of the Kiki houses and the balls, but also showed me how people in the scene know that talking about their struggles and injustices are crucial to not only survive but to thrive. There were stories everywhere. It was also very energising to be in a space where femininity is celebrated.
The film revolves around a very specific scene in New York. In approaching the film, what dialogues were you having with Twiggy and the main characters in order to tell their story in a truthful and honest manner?
Twiggy and I started meeting sometimes several times a week to discuss the film. This was also the beginning of a very strong friendship. We realised very quickly that we should write the film together, and try to be as transparent in the filmmaking process visa vie the community. We presented the project at meetings, did community work-in-progress screenings. We worked for a long time, and started following a set of cast members, such as Gia, Izana and Chris. Our conversations with them was very open, I wanted people to feel agency, and I think this created an atmosphere of honesty.
Many of the featured personalities are victims of homophobia, transphobia and homelessness. What was your own experience within the ‘Kiki’ community?
I was particularly drawn to the sense of community and belonging which the ‘Kiki’ group celebrate. The members of the scene gave me back my faith in activism. My experiences were different, since I have a set of privileges that people in the scene does not generally have; being white, European, middle class. As a homosexual woman I have experienced homophobia but I can never claim to be at risk. This risk in the Kiki scene members’ lives are palpable. Many grew up in neighbourhoods where displaying femininity and queerness in a masculine body was very dangerous. Being trans is also very dangerous, in a whole other kind of way.
Do you consider yourself a spectator or a member of the community?
I do consider myself part of, or at least closely connected to, the community, but I am still an outsider since I do not compete or have a leadership role in a house. The KIKI scene and Ballroom in general is very open and generous. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of it, and why the scene is able to reach at-risk youth. But incidentally, it makes the scene vulnerable to people who aim to exploit it, despite Twiggy and other gate keepers. It makes me really angry. Often is is a whiteness issue, but it doesn’t have to be, black artists are also “borrowing” from the culture without giving back. Credit always has to be given to the black and brown people that created it. I feel very humbled that we are having a talk back after a screening during Harlem Pride in a few weeks. It feels like we will come full circle, this is where ballroom culture was born.
“THE FILM WORLD DOES NOT KNOW YET HOW MANY BRILLIANT PROJECTS COULD BE MADE BY THE PEOPLE IT ACTIVELY MARGINALISES."
Is there a ballroom scene in Sweden?
Yes, there is! When the film was shown in Sweden there were nice meetings between members of the cast and members of the ballroom scene in Sweden. The ballroom community is truly international.
Tell us about some of the filmmakers who have inspired you.
Fred Wiseman has inspired me, his ability to portray spaces and they people that inhabit them. Chantal Ackerman was early on a very important filmmaker for me. Steve McQueen, I remember watching “Hunger” and just being so affected by it and yet recognising the incredible skill he shows in directing that film. I knew McQueen as a visual artist, which is my background. I think Kirsten Johnson, director of Cameraperson, is a wonderful artist.
I also like the films of Göran Hugo Olsson, “The Black Power Mixtape” and “Concerning Violence”. I also really like a good story, entertaining stories.
I think you are a key example for filmmakers who want to tell stories from specific communities’ in a respectful and empowering way. Do you have any advice for filmmakers of how approach your subjects and stories with respect?
I think every filmmaker should be humble and listen carefully. You don’t know what your film is, even though you have to pretend you know to be able to plan and finance it. These ego trips we see so much in the film world, so called auteurs, which are usually male directors, they are missing important parts of the story. Maybe even the most important part. They are so busy speaking with their loud voices that they stop listening to the world. So my advice would be to listen, and to work with people that are marginalised (women, people of colour, LGBTQ folks.) We are analytical and detect nuance, and we have to work harder. The film world does not know yet how many brilliant projects could be made by the people it actively marginalises.
What’s next for you?
I am working on several new projects, all that in some ways constitute portraits of communities. I am trying to challenge myself, maybe make fiction and documentary hybrids.
Interview by Manuela Leigh
Photography Christelle de Castro
Styling Danasia Sutton
Hair Khane Kutzwell
Production Manuela Leigh