By Hans Pedersen, April 2017 Issue.
Kiki is fierce, dazzling and sassy all at once. In this documentary Swedish director Sara Jordenö explores the lives queer youth of color who are living fearlessly and without compromise as voguing ballroom dancers in New York City.
One could say Kiki picks up where the documentary Paris Is Burning left off a quarter century ago. But here, the subjects get more say over where the camera goes. Jordenö co-wrote the film with Twiggy Pucci-Garçon, one of the gatekeepers in the Kiki scene who helps incoming members, offering the director access to this subculture.
With an inside look, Pucci-Garçon and Jordenö find fresh stories that reveal the dancer’s love for one another, their commitment to self-expression in the face of prejudice and also the familiar challenges the LGBTQ community has faced for years.
Interviews with the queer youth are interspersed with footage of the voguing competitions, held in rented spaces where, under a strict set of rules, young people of color express themselves in dance-offs.
What’s striking is how many of them continue to battle issues like violence against the transgender community, job security and homelessness.
But their energy makes this film crackle, and it’s inspiring to see and hear how dancers rely upon and stand up for one another, despite discrimination based on their race, gender identity or sexual orientation.
Each subject opens up by describing their fears, aspirations and challenges – from living with HIV to paying for hormone replacement therapy. More than one make the case that large segments of the trans community remain underrepresented and discounted.
Gia Marie Love, for instance, is an outspoken trans woman who defends the choices that sex workers make amid the community’s continued marginalization. She questions how the same-sex marriage battle/victory ultimately impacts her life as a black trans woman in NYC who struggles to maintain employment in the face of ongoing transphobia and discrimination. She eloquently explains how the ballroom scene is an enriching one. Other subjects, including Chi Chi Mizrahi and Symba McQueen, also spread awareness and keep it real.
The gay and trans dancers are truly a creative force in this inspired film. Glimmering in the ballrooms, the talented subjects stay true to themselves as they show how the vogue scene – and their chosen families within it – that helps them endure.
The movie is also a reminder of how few resources exist for such talented individuals who don’t conform to society’s antiquated rules. Judging from this documentary, our nation seems to have failed our trans community and yet their light is stronger than ever.
But the film is not perfect: it can be uneven, lacking cohesion in the first act as the dancers’ stories seem to unfold haphazardly. Yet the electricity of the young people overcomes the movie’s early struggles to define a story arc.
As the diaphanous and determined dancers share their craft and their stories, they prove they’re the real stars of the show. Music from the ballroom DJ collective Qween Beat and fabulous footage shot over the course four years help illuminate and carry the narrative along.
Whether performing in public spaces or in scenes carefully lit by the director, the creativity and beauty of these performers is both engaging and enthralling.
This revelatory documentary spotlights gay and trans youth of color who follow their paths and forge ahead to fulfill their dreams. It’s also an empowering reminder that we’re all in this together.
Several members of this tightly-knit group appeared on-stage with Pucci-Garçon and Jordenö following the opening of Kiki at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. They hit the stage with an impromptu performance, treating audiences to a galvanizing dance routine that brought about a standing ovation.
For more information and to find out where Kiki is playing, visit kikimovie.com.