“You will be hard-pressed to find another film that celebrates the vast spectrum of gender and sexual expression in the way KIKI does.”
Title: KIKI (2017)
Director: Sara Jordenö 👩🏼🇸🇪
Writers: Sara Jordenö 👩🏼🇸🇪 and Twiggy Pucci Garçon 👨🏾🇺🇸🌈
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
In 1991, Paris is Burning yanked back the curtain on a hidden subculture of New York City—the drag Ballroom scene and birthplace of voguing, a form of dance that’s experiencing a revival influencing such mainstream artists as Beyonce, Rihanna, and FKA Twigs.
Enter KIKI, the only other documentary to cover Ballroom since Paris is Burning almost 30 years later. Sara Jordenö, the director hailing from Sweden (a country enjoying its own thriving ball scene) has a lot to live up to—but with co-writer and insider Twiggy Pucci Garçon, the two filmmakers have created a triumphant follow-up to the groundbreaking original while putting their own advocacy spin on the content.
Much like Paris is Burning, KIKI is equal parts funny and tragic; educational and just plain entertaining. It’s a study in extremes, not unlike the fascinating, eloquent, and strong individuals the documentary follows. Above all, it pulls no punches from an emotional standpoint. The intimacy KIKI delivers is unparalleled, employing close-up confessional shots, slice-of-life candids, and interviews that span years where the audience can watch cast members mature and change, sometimes physically as one trans woman chooses to transition over the course of the documentary.
I would’ve scored this film 5/5, but to compromise with critics’ consensus (Metacritic scores this 73/100) I’ll take off half a point. Regardless, I still think this is a must-watch documentary for both its important social messages as well as sheer enjoyability.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
While the international voguing scene has found increased interest among cisgender women, the Ballroom subculture depicted in KIKI consists primarily of gay or bisexual men and trans women. Cisgender women are not the focus of this documentary; however, I’ll give KIKI an extra point above the 3/5 baseline since the struggles of trans women still fall under the category of discrimination against women. (In general, though, Mediaversity examines trans representation under the LGBTQ category.)
Finally, props to the filmmakers for assembling a majority female roster behind the scenes—the director, both producers, both directors of photography, and the sound person are all women.
KIKI features a minority within a minority—queer people of color. Specifically, of the seven cast members listed on their website, 5 are black and 2 are Hispanic.
Not only do we enjoy a cast of all POC, we’re also invited a peek into their family dynamics. Some parents are supportive, others less so, where the consequences of family estrangements can range from drug abuse to youth homelessness and even sex work. Overall, we’re treated to a wide range of POC experiences considering the small sample size of just seven cast members.
Scoring full accolades in this category is a no-brainer for a film that explores a subculture whose very existence is tied up in gender-fluidity and the discrimination that can cause.
You will be hard-pressed to find another film that celebrates the vast spectrum of gender and sexual expression in the way KIKI does, as it spotlights the unique hardships that LGBTQ individuals of color experience depending on intertwined factors such as familial support, skin color, looking femme or butch, and so on.
KIKI zeroes in on these nuanced complexities. For example, we hear about the pressures some trans women feel to physically transition, if only because it commands higher fees during sex work. The personal journeys illustrated in this documentary are so unexplored in mainstream media that KIKI feels all the more illuminating for it.
Mediaversity Grade: A- 4.63/5
Altogether, KIKI paints a vivid landscape of beautiful, complex humans who rarely have the opportunity to see themselves onscreen, even among other programs that may highlight and celebrate racial diversity, or LGBTQ individuals. It is precisely this intersectionality, with a slant towards political advocacy, that makes KIKI such a compelling documentary.