Film Review: Kiki

Not as much fun as you’d expect, but an honest, if heavy-spirited, take on today’s house scene.
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Twenty-six years after Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning introduced the world to the New York vogueing scene, wherein mostly black and Latin gay and transgender urbanites competed for trophies and cash prizes in flamboyantly garbed dance competitions which pitted them against one another, comes Sara Jordenö’s Kiki. The word itself is gay slang for a party, and that is still what the current generation of dance- and fashion-mad kids positively live for.

The basic moves which constitute their dance rather remain the same after all this time—a ridiculously exaggerated strutting, comprising bent knees and semaphoric hand gestures, landing in a (hopefully) artfully executed flip or flop onto the floor. Even the locale hasn’t changed, for Manhattan’s Christopher Street Pier is still Ground Zero for these would-be superstars to congregate, dish and show off their latest moves and designer—both real and fake—accessories.

Jordenö is from Sweden, with a heavy background in art that has a decidedly political lean to it, and she brings a resolute serious-mindedness to her film. She focuses on the socioeconomic backgrounds of a few of her chosen subjects, some who identify as trans, which are uniformly marked by disapproving family members, ostracism by police and society at large, bullying and worse. And whether it’s accumulating the cash needed for gender-reassignment surgery or plain survival, finances are always an issue for these not recognizably employable free spirits.

The didacticism of Jordenö’s approach wears somewhat thin, coupled with her European sensibility, however compassionate, so completely at odds with the gritty nature of the world she has infiltrated. Where Livingston’s film positively exploded with the imagery of the various “houses” of dancers cavorting in the most entertaining and outrageous way, there’s a dearth of actual ballroom footage, as well as no true historical context given for the uninitiated, unfamiliar with the scene itself—starting with the film’s title. (Its first public airing was in Madonna’s Truth or Dare, spouted by a gaggle of her dancers, having a gay ole time.) For all the pain and hardship these intrepid kids endure, the reward—the chance to strut their stuff before a constituent audience of the enthusiastic and highly judgmental—is given too short shrift, and Kiki becomes more heavy weather than probably intended.

A few touching moments help considerably: the confessions of a mother, reunited with her son in Virginia, who says although his coming out gay goes against her religion, she still loves him unconditionally, and those of a transgender, utter beauty who tells of being viciously slapped by her mom and thrown out of the house after her female tendencies were discovered. She never cries, she admits, but she does here, and so will you.

Jordenö’s take is also forthrightly one-sided, showing her total unfamiliarity with the territory she covers. This writer happens to live on Christopher Street, and the 24-hour presence of the Kiki crew, however young, gifted and non-white, is often accompanied by incessant noise, violence, vandalism (a demolished Dunkin’ Donuts), inappropriate (to put it mildly) behavior, and other negatives which do constitute a real threat to the neighborhood, however much of an uneasy peace is maintained by a largely non-present police force quartered one block away. On a beautiful summer day, I witnessed two of them on their way to vogue at the Pier, gabbing away and munching donuts. One of them suddenly threw the wrapper in the face of a white girl, relaxing on a stoop. I can still hear her plaintive “Why did you do that?” as the couple kept on their way, laughing derisively at her. There is, sometimes, a two-way street to bullying.

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