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“The Vanity of Trans-People Versus the Humanity of Trans-People”: Sara Jordenö and Twiggy Pucci Garcon on KIKI

Still from KIKI (© Naiti Gámez)

“One of my friends was killed over there,” says Christopher Waldorf, reflecting back to a scene from KIKI, the 66th Berlinale’s Teddy Award-winning documentary. In an early scene from the film, Waldorf is captured voguing down a dangerous street in Harlem. “The Trade are straight hood guys,” says Waldorf, explaining the threat of violence and harassment that the Trade inflicts on Voguers like himself. “The only reason we were able to joke around when we were filming there,” chimes in another featured subject in the film, Gia Marie Love, “is because we were with white people.”

First-time documentary filmmaker Sara Jordenö is white. A native of northern Sweden, Jordenö co-wrote KIKI with Twiggy Pucci Garcon, who is not white and is a ballroom performer and leader in the largest international house of the “Kiki” scene. The Kiki scene is a space of performance and self-expression, a safe haven for LGBTQ youth-of-color in Harlem. KIKI is a coming of age story that follows members of the Kiki scene as they perform and transform in the community and in the outside social fabric of their everyday lives.

“Through their fierce performances,” said the Jury that awarded KIKI Berlin’s coveted Teddy Award, “these young people of color demonstrate that gender is a broad spectrum and that reinvention is essential to living your life.” Having world premiered earlier this year at Sundance, the U.S./Swedish co-production will be the opening night film at the upcoming Tempo Documentary Film Festival in Sweden.

Filmmaker: It took four years to make this film. How did it start?

Sara Jordenö: I met Twiggy Pucci Garcon and Chi Chi Mizrahi at a community based organization in Harlem. They were leaders in this sub-culture Kiki scene, and told me about their youth movement. When they found out I was a filmmaker, they actually approached me, so I was invited to do the project.

Filmmaker: You are from Sweden. Going into the project, did you have reservations about representing this culture?

Jordenö: I had a lot of trepidations. Even though I’ve lived in the U.S. and feel like I’ve become Americanized, I was concerned about how to make a very nuanced portrait of people who share a very different reality than mine. Even though I’m a queer person and didn’t have an easy life, I can’t claim to have been at risk, whereas many people in the Kiki scene do have a claim on that. There’s a risk for them just by existing, walking down the street, facing police harassment, and so on. That hasn’t happened to me because of my white privilege. So the only way we felt comfortable with the project was if Twiggy came on as co-writer, which happened right at the beginning. It would have been impossible to make this film without Twiggy.

Filmmaker: Had you heard of voguing and ballroom before you started the project?

Jordenö: I had heard of it from a theoretical standpoint. Judith Butler wrote about it in the ’90s, so my perspective was just from what I had read. I’d never been to a ball or to practice, which was an overwhelming experience. I realized how important it was because I was so impressed by it.

Filmmaker: What about it felt most important for you to capture?

Jordenö: We really didn’t want this stereotypical portrait because there are so many stereotypes already attached to so many of the people in this community. We wanted to try and tell a different story, but I’ve been very nervous. When we showed it at Sundance and for the German audiences here, I kept wondering whether people got it. I feel that there are a lot of nuances and an advanced political discussion in the film that we’re used to in the Kiki scene, but that’s not in the mainstream yet. When I read the reviews though, I feel as though people get it. And this is mostly because of the people in the film. When they speak, people listen.

Filmmaker: Gia, you are such an important subject in the film. What’s your experience watching it?

Gia Marie Love: I see growth. It started from such a small subject that I didn’t think could become so big. I see a conversation starter. The stories that people talk through in ballroom are from a different lens than the stories in something like Paris is Burning. People in ballroom all have individual agendas but for a common goal.

Filmmaker: What’s the goal?

Love: I would say that a lot of us want our people and people in society overall to have more education about our queer life and our style of ballroom, which is an intervention of life for us. We come from very oppressive communities and arrive at ballroom to be liberated and free. It’s more than just dancing. It’s a life saver for us. But, we didn’t only shoot ballroom. We included other aspects of our lives. Often, the way the media stereotypes ballroom people is that this is all that we do, but we each have a life and ballroom is a part of it. For some of us it’s a big part of it and how we survive, but it is just one part.

Filmmaker: Sara, how did you resist or avoid stereotyping or misrepresentation?

Jordenö: From a technical standpoint, we wanted to raise the production value. We shot on the Red, which is radical actually. Most of the films made about this group have had lower production value. Also, we wanted to shoot for a long time in order to focus on portraiture. We kept returning for more and more interviews in order to go deeper and capture the changing political landscape and the people’s journeys over four years within this changing landscape. That the people in it are speaking through the film and reaching the audience is the most important part. Of course it’s a representation and a construction, but I’m very proud of the way we did it because I think it enabled the voices to speak through the construction. Besides from being a work of cinema, the film could also be a platform to change the political conversation.

Filmmaker: Gia, how do you expect the film to impact or change your life?

Love: As a trans person, I want to be open but I also want to have my privacy respected. I will most likely never have the opportunity to live stealth — not that that’s something I want to do, but I should have the option.

Filmmaker: Stealth?

Love: Stealth means living as a person who isn’t recognized as trans. Because of the film, I don’t have that privilege — and it is a privilege — anymore. And I’m fine with that. But making that decision was a big one because sometimes when people don’t know that much about you, or don’t care to learn that much about you, they tend to jump in in an investigative way that isn’t always appropriate.

Filmmaker: But asking questions is at least making an effort, which is better than not, no?

Love: Questions about my body aren’t relevant to the conversation about trans rights or the discussion about gender. It depends what forum we’re having the conversation [in]. It isn’t important for me to talk about my body in a conversation about my identity as a trans-woman. I’d rather have a discussion about gender and how I’m more likely to be attacked on the street because of who I am, how I’m more likely to be HIV-positive just because of who I am. I’d rather talk about that than whether I got my face done or whether I have a big ass. But that’s what society tends to focus on — the vanity of trans-people versus the humanity of trans-people.

Jordenö: That was really our guiding principle – the humanity. I wanted to show the specifics of each person, because people tend to perceive them as all the same.

Love: That was a really important piece of the collaboration for me, to discuss what we all reveal about ourselves on an individual level. At first, there were certain things I was uncomfortable with, but then I realized that they needed to be there for the film. And I’m glad it was something we decided together.

Jordenö: Fred Wiseman, who is legendary and made forty vérité films, is a very important filmmaker to me. He, like many other filmmakers, secures his right to final cut by having his subjects sign away authorship. He’s very upfront about his method with his participants, but I reject this notion that collaboration with the gatekeepers in the writing process is somehow detrimental to cinematic quality.

Filmmaker: A director’s vision can be a shared one.

Jordenö: I always felt that I was able to do more because of the collaboration. Before I made this first documentary feature, I worked as a visual artist for sixteen years and I’ve worked in the art world in the tradition of social practice that includes this kind of collaboration. And I’ve never felt limited artistically.

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