Twenty-six years ago, Jennie Livingston's documentary Paris Is Burning introduced the world to Harlem's ballroom scene. Men from across the sexual spectrum had come together to create their own realm of fashion, beauty and the creativity that they hid by day.
Kiki, a film screening at the QDoc festival this weekend, documents how drag and ballroom events have evolved for today's millennial generation, whose vernacular is hugely composed of RuPaul catchphrases. Portland's own ball scene is a range from "high art drag concepts like Hydrangea Strangea to an expanding vogue scene by way of Kumari Suraj and the father of the House of Ada, Daniel Girón," local queen Lolita Black says.
Kiki centers on one particular sect of New York's ballroom sphere: a socially active junior league whose voguers do a lot more than dance. These modern balls, called "kikis," have less pomp than their foremothers' but include more free HIV testing.
Voguer and co-creator Twiggy Pucci Garçon intimately guides the Swedish director, Sara Jordenö, through "houses," families of like-minded voguers who are ruled by an elected house mother. They spend hours choreographing for the next kiki, like a dance troupe with heavy political discourse during cool-downs. At Kiki Coalition meetings, we sit in with Garçon discussing problems like homelessness, underemployment and voter registration.
Although it's hailed as an "unofficial sequel" to Paris Is Burning, Kiki differs in style by showing each person as a unique journey. It's not so much about teaching everyone else what the gays are up to, but a polished presentation of individuals within the black LGBT community.
Kiki visits families in hometowns and shows video journal entries of voguers before their first ball. Jordenö zooms in for close-ups of chin stubble or an acrylic nail as her subjects narrate their hardships, from losing friends to police brutality, to faking a girlier look for better pay as sex workers. Some are transitioning into females while others vogue in do-rags and work boots, but all of them have found validation in this creative outlet. As one voguer puts it, "Someone who walks is telling you: 'I am beautiful. This is who I am.'"
The kikis themselves are the lifeblood of the film, making Jordenö perhaps too ambitious to touch on so many different socioeconomic issues when it's impossible to compete with that buzz.
One of the most memorable shots captures a makeshift dressing room between two parked cars, where guys in white tank tops rush to straighten their sisters' feathered headdresses before the kiki begins. A raucous energy emanates from the screen. Your eyes dilate and your pulse quickens as the camera pans over the shouting crowd, everyone jumping over one another to wag their fingers at the technique, costumes and attitude that are giving us life down the runway. If you don't know what that phrase means, you're lucky to be living in a city with a kiki near you.
Critic's Grade: B+