Strong as Fuck

The ongoing impact of Sara Jordenö's award-winning documentary KIKI

Marc YatesRobert Rieger

It’s Berlinale 2016, and we’ve just watched the first ever public screening of the documentary, KIKI. There is a palpable atmosphere in the room, as though we’ve just witnessed something truly special.

After the screening, a number of the film’s protagonists and production team take to the stage for a Q&A session. An audience member takes the microphone. She doesn’t have a question, but just wants to say how thankful she is that the film has been made. She is a trans woman, and while she isn’t sure if she will start hormone treatment again, the film has given her hope, a hope that she thought was lost. You can hear the emotion in her voice. One of film’s main protagonists, Gia Marie Love, comes down from the stage to embrace her. It’s an incredibly touching and intimate moment. When Gia returns to her place on stage, she has tears in her eyes, and we understand the importance and power of what we’ve just witnessed. Clearly, this is a documentary that not only reflects the strength of its characters, but one that also gives strength to a community.

KIKI is the latest documentary to reignite the conversation started by Jennie Livingston’s seminal 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning. Like its predecessor, KIKI is a startling, touching and intelligent look at New York’s ball culture – a thriving scene of black and hispanic LGBTQ individuals and their chosen families (houses) who support them through the hardships of homelessness, drug addiction, illness and violence, before ushering them onto the runway in full, dazzling drag. As the film’s remarkable coming-of-age story unfolds, we meet a community on intimate terms with death tearing up catwalks for the chance of a trophy, its members becoming the new legends of New York.

When we meet director Sara Jordenö, it is in the lounge of a Berlin hotel with the Berlinale whirlwind in full flow around us. In the midst of it all, Sara sits with an almost permanent smile on her face. She is still visibly buzzing from the night before as we sit down to talk about what it took to make KIKI and why the stories emerging from this marginalised group of New Yorkers continue to resonate.

“I was on some little clouds the whole night, you know?” Sara laughs, beaming from the reception that the film received at Berlinale. “There were so many people that stayed for the Q&A, it was touching. We had standing ovations at Sundance. Now that is very much a film audience and they embraced it, which was so overwhelming. We worked on it for so long, I don’t know if we realised this day would come.”

Production on KIKI began in 2012, and Swedish-native Sara embarked on the process of documenting the film’s subjects over some years; a process that would see her become one of the family. The fact that KIKI is the result of a unique insider–outsider collaboration only begins to explain the spirit of this documentary: it is unmistakably political, but its message is deliberately filtered through the stories of its characters. Stereotypes and preconceived notions of transgender issues are addressed with simple humanity rather than harsh rhetoric, providing far greater impact and effortlessly winning over audiences. “I respect documentaries like that,” explains Sara, “that bring up an issue and bring it home and create change, but this is a film about these particular individuals and their friends. It’s a portrait of friendship, and that is universal.”

With KIKI being co-written by Twiggy Pucci Garçon – a gatekeeper of the Kiki scene and a central figure in the film – in addition to Sara being on intimate terms with the people she was filming, one might wonder if the intimacy necessary to make the documentary influenced Sara’s portrayal of her subjects. “Twiggy and the others were very open about this,” Sara says. “They were like: ‘You should not sugarcoat it.’ These people are not perfect, the community is not perfect. I do think that it’s a love letter,” she adds, “but that’s because they deserve it. Obviously I admire them a lot and we formed this bond, but I wanted to make an honest film. This was also a discussion I had with the cinematographer and editor. We wanted to shy away from the stereotypes that exist in storytelling around this group.”

KIKI is a patchwork of stories as diverse as the characters we get to meet during its 94 minutes: Gia, the blossoming trans woman whose identity is awoken in the ballroom; Chi Chi Mizrahi, the house mother who opens up about his struggles with addiction; the dauntless and articulate Symba, who speaks about his HIV diagnosis; and Twiggy Pucci Garçon at the head of it all – youth advocate, ballroom legend and unwavering pillar of support for the people around him. The depictions of Kiki ball preparations become a framework through which discussions of very real issues in the Black and Trans Lives Matter movements can be explored. As a result, KIKI is marbled with awareness and acceptance, its central figures literally looking the audience unflinchingly in the eye.

In an industry where the mainstream is dominated by white, heterosexual, cis male narratives, it can seem like an uphill struggle to get a film like KIKI noticed. “There is this idea that stories like this do not have mainstream appeal, and maybe will not fill theatres,” says Sara. “There’s the beginning of a diversity discussion within the mainstream of the mainstream, at the Oscars, and it’s interesting it’s happening there. The audiences want more, it’s a total misconception that we can’t fill theatres. It’s interesting to see the response because there’s almost this relief. When you see the audience … there was this response of ‘Yes!’ We were surprised because we thought we brought forward a very radical discussion, and we didn’t know if people wanted to hear it. Now I’m starting to think there’s a hunger for it.”

Sara’s desire is for the film to be used as a political tool, a platform upon which the issues the Kiki community face – homophobia, transphobia, homelessness, HIV/AIDS, and more – can be discussed. And despite the film’s incredible head start on the festival circuit, she is quick to stress that the hard work to publicise the film has only just begun: “As with any non-mainstream political opinion, you have to fight to get it heard.”

It's still an extremely radical thing not to follow the gender that you were assigned at birth.

As much as KIKI is a political film exposing us to the plight of a marginalised community, it is also a portrait of this dazzling and colourful scene. In the ballroom, the focus is very much on fun and acceptance, with unmissable overtones of scalding competition. One competition in particular has been familiar to the mainstream for more than 25 years: Vogueing. This highly competitive dance is central to KIKI and has been a staple of the ballroom scene for decades. The dance takes its name from the magazine, because many of the movements mimic the poses of the models featured within its pages, although it has since evolved into a high-energy, gymnastic art form. “[Vogueing] has mainstream appeal because people know about it through Madonna,” Sara explains. But Madonna’s brand of vogueing, the vogue that has been appropriated by the mainstream, is fundamentally different to the vogueing we see in the Kiki ballroom. This vogueing is just as politically relevant as the discussions of transgender experience we see in the film. As Sara asserts: “Vogueing is political. Ballroom is political.”

Because it’s political, it isn’t always safe: “You see, vogueing is dangerous for people on the scene. A lot of it is a stylised femininity, it’s really an exploration of a set of gestures we code as ‘feminine’, and because of that it’s really dangerous to vogue in the wrong areas of New York. You see a moment in the film when Gia is attacked by these kids on the street, for example – the danger is always there. Trans women get killed, we know this, so these people have absolutely been forbidden from expressing themselves in this way. When they come to the art form, to vogue, there’s this pent-up energy. It’s a ‘finally’, an enormous pleasure in it, and an urgency in expressing it. If a white, cis, heterosexual woman does it, it just doesn’t mean the same thing. I feel that sometimes people don’t get it, how radical it is.”

And radical it still is. Although KIKI allows us to share Twiggy Pucci Garçon’s joy as he walks into The White House – invitation in hand – for a reception with the President, it is clear that it still takes courage to face the fear, discrimination and violence encountered by the Kiki community. “I think that certain people would say ‘Oh, you know it’s not dangerous anymore to be LGBTQ’,” Sara continues, “but they just don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s still an extremely radical thing not to follow the gender that you were assigned at birth.”

Throughout the film we hear insults hurled at trans women on the street, see the ballroom star Divo flamboyantly dancing on the West 4th Street subway platform before explaining that there is “no way” he would do the same in the East New York neighbourhood he grew up in, and hear Gia’s biological mother speak tearfully about an LGBTQ friend who was killed. This again recalls Paris is Burning, in which Angie Xtravaganza – visibly sick with AIDS-related illnesses – talks about the murder of her house daughter Venus, a young trans woman strangled in a New York motel in 1988. Although we hear President Obama himself defiantly declare in KIKI that, “This is an issue whose time has come,” the status quo for the community in 2016 is sometimes indistinguishable from that of 1990. There is still a long way to go.

Audiences approaching KIKI with expectations of entertaining catwalk spectacles and in-depth gender politics will not be disappointed, but they will be surprised. While KIKI and documentaries like it might be regarded as terrific examples of voices being given to marginalised groups, this film is far less about giving the Kiki community a voice rather than amplifying the many intelligent, determined and unwavering voices that it already has. Sara elaborates: “There is this surprise. People are saying, ‘Oh they’re so articulate,’ and I was also surprised. I also had the same stereotypes. When you hear about ballroom – and this is also true of LGBTQ people of colour in particular, I think – there is this idea that they’re interested in fashion, that they want money, they’re not intellectual. There are a lot of stereotypes like this and they are simply not true.”

This is a point that KIKI brings home with remarkable and genuine effectiveness. “Wasn’t that a question during the Q&A?” Sara asks, “People were like, ‘Do you really talk about this? Do you really sit around and talk about gender?’ And Gia was like, ‘Of course!’” The Kiki community is one that tells its own stories; all we have to do is listen. The costumes and noise of the ballroom frame a dialogue about struggle, resilience, and unbreakable family ties. As Twiggy Pucci Garçon, founder of the international Opulent Haus of PUCCI, concludes: “We’re strong as fuck.”

The success of KIKI shows no sign of slowing down. It won the Teddy Award for Best Documentary and Essay Film at the Berlinale, and the Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights at the Full Frame Festival in North Carolina. KIKI will continue to light up screens on the international film festival circuit throughout 2016, reaping the praise it deserves everywhere it goes.

Read more about KIKI and watch clips from the film on the website. Keep up with the latest news about the film at by following the team on Facebook.