Loud, proud and utterly fearless, the faces of Kiki glow with originality and defiantly turn away from societal norms deemed too humdrum for those striving to live life fabulously. Immersing herself in the New York subculture “Kiki,” Sara Jordenö delicately captures the minute-by-minute struggles and triumphs of LGBTQ youths of color in a headstrong march to reclaim identity.
Born out of the Ballroom Scene, Kiki is a movement targeted at vulnerable LGBTQ youths struggling with their sense of self and engaging in dangerous activity. Many of these inner-city kids, with nowhere to run, have been kicked out of their homes by angry parents or school for being at the center of violent outbursts. Finding solace among other exuberant outcasts in “Houses” (groups headed by the surprisingly hetero-normative roles of “Mother” and “Father”), the subjects of Kiki, and all those who lie outside of its narrow window, are free to grapple with their existence in a safe and encouraging place.
Thrusting her audience into the world of vogueing without any explanation as to what it is, Jordenö relies largely on the dance/art form to explain itself. She knows that tying the erratic freeform moves to spoken language is an exercise in futility. For the uninitiated, coming into this documentary ignorant to the Kiki/Ballroom scene, the history of the movement or a detailed explanation of what it actually is, cannot begin to characterize what it means to those who live by it. A means of pure expression, “walking a ball” has become a means for these subjugated and mistreated kids to reclaim their innermost self.
The one avenue of explanation Jordenö chooses to explore is the identities her subjects were assigned at birth. While this could be seen as a move to satiate curious viewers, I would posit that these interviews serve as the perfect counterpoint to the flamboyant freedom of ball culture. In showing these kids in their “natural,” suppressed environments — static shots framed with cold gray skyscrapers and indistinguishable passersby — Jordenö can demonstrably show how freeing their lives inside of Kiki can be. It is less about their physical transformations and more about the strong, exceptional people they have been encouraged to become.
Kiki is not the documentary that will prompt mass change or acceptance of fringe LGBTQ culture (largely because socially ignorant/bigoted people would never dare to engage with it), but it doesn’t have to be. Kiki is about learning to accept your identity — no matter how strange, colorful, or mold-breaking that person is — and coming to love that inner self. Kiki culture is fighting for more than equal rights and youth homelessness, they are fighting to free people of the artificial societal bounds that birth has assigned them. We should all be lucky enough to be so free.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.