Kiki: Triumph Amongst Adversity


Kiki (2016) theatrical poster, courtesy of IMDB.

Julia Baldacci, Managing Editor

On November 8 at 7:30pm, film enthusiasts gathered in Razzo Hall to view Swedish director Sara Jordenö’s 2016 documentary “Kiki.” Named for the unique style of dance present in the underground LGBT ballroom community, “Kiki” explores the intersection between art and life.

Both Jordenö and one of the film’s subjects Gia Marie Love appeared after the screening for a discussion with the audience. At times both vibrant and heartbreaking, the film never shies away from telling the whole story and nothing but the truth. Film critic Richard Lawson remarked that “in a time when there isn’t much to be hopeful about, ‘Kiki’ shines fierce and bright.” In a testament to its achievement, the film also won a Teddy Award for Best Documentary in 2016.

Pulsating with music, each ballroom scene carries a life of its own while the dancers tell their stories. “Kiki” explores the dance culture through its members, providing a more in-depth look at New York’s kiki scene, and the lives of those that are in it. Most participants in ballroom culture belong to groups called “houses.” The leader of the houses are referred to by familial names such as father, mother, sister and so on, and serve to be there for each of their members in any way they can. The houses all compete for trophies and prizes at ball events. Some walk, some dance, and others compete in categories. Only about half of the film is spent focusing on the ballroom scene itself. For Jordenö, “the ballroom scene was a hook to talk about the backbone and educate about activism.” The dance floor is a spectacle of light, color, and almost manic energy that pops out of the screen.

For many featured in the film, dancing is a way to escape troubled pasts. For some, it is the only way they can truly express who they are. From the view of her lofty New York City apartment, a newly transitioned transgender woman tearfully recalls being kicked out of her house by her mother a few years prior. One man describes being molested just as quickly as another scene cuts to him dancing to the beat. Another tells a room full of people in a support group of his constant self-convincing that he has had HIV for years, only to get tested and realize that he does not. We see a vigil for a young man that has recently committed suicide, and a community of diverse people coming together to mourn. These and more struggles are highlighted in “Kiki” through the stories of real people.

A particularly jarring scene occurs about halfway through the film when Gia Marie Love, a black transwoman, was walking down the street with her friend. They come across a group of preteen boys who at first only try and get in front of the camera. When they hear Gia Marie’s voice, they begin to mock and follow her, leading to a tense confrontation in which she attempts to scold them. With Gia clearly agitated, Jordenö appears in front of the camera and asks if she would like to take a moment. “Yes, I’m triggered,” is Gia’s response, and the camera shuts off.

When asked about this in particular, Gia notes that, in retrospect, she understands that the boys were probably just looking for attention. Jordenö says that she “wasn’t shocked.”

This scene can be considered the climax of the film. Everything prior had been surface level introductions of both the subjects and the ballroom scene itself. After it, a more in depth approach is taken to tackling issues of homophobia and transphobia. “I wanted to treat it not as a shock factor but as a reality,” said Jordenö.

Instead of shying away from these raw and, at times, uncomfortable moments, Jordenö instead encourages her subjects to speak as much as they please. Her hands-on approach to filmmaking led to very personal details coming to light. One student asked how she was able to film such intimate moments and how it made her feel. “Terrified,” Jordenö responded. “I felt responsible.” She added, “I made a lot of sacrifices for the film and gave it everything I got.” Jordenö had a personal connection to the film, as she had been approached by Twiggy Pucci Garçon — artist, activist, performer and subject of the film. She emphasizes that this is unusual in the filmmaking business at a professional level, and it sheds light on why she felt so connected to the documentary.

Throughout “Kiki,” Twiggy in particular represents a beacon of light. As a house leader and active member of the LGBT community, Twiggy is conversational, inspirational, and positive in every scene that he is featured. “Above all, I love,” he tells the camera a few minutes into the film. Unlike some of his friends, Twiggy had a more accepting coming out experience. Jordenö filmed an intimate reunion between him and his mother, in which she admitted that it took her time to accept that her son was gay, but now embraces it. When Jordenö gently presses her for Twiggy’s father’s response, she speaks through tears with her son looking on, “He did not accept it.”

Sara Jordenö’s passion as a filmmaker is evident, as “Kiki” is truly a labor of love. She and Gia Marie Love had a rapport on stage that indicated a kinship had formed between them over the years of making the documentary.

The film gets the audience up close and personal with unique and incredible individuals, while never shying away from the harsh reality that some face.

“Knowing yourself is a never-ending journey,” said Gia. A student asked her if there was anything else that she would like to say that she hadn’t answered yet. “That’s a good question,” Gia responded. She said she wished to talk more about tech where she was now as an individual. The event wrapped up on Gia’s final thought: “This film is a record of something that doesn’t go away. Who we are has always been contested. We can get through this.”

“Kiki” is available to purchase and watch on Hulu, iTunes, YouTube, and other online platforms.