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Pioneering life

Kiki throws the viewer right into the lives of Black, diseased youngsters in New York, who for various reasons have been placed outside the American Dream.


Kiki (2016)
Directed by Sara Jordenö


"Everything is a transition," one of the film's protagonists says initially, setting the tone for what is to come. The documentary Kiki was created by Swedish director Sara Jordenö, in collaboration with Twiggy Pucci Garcon and other members of the NYC Kiki Ballroom stage – a New York underground environment for LGBT youths (lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people) who have been kicked out of home. We get to follow different young people connected to the environment, and throughout the film we return to different scenes from the environment ballroom where the underground environment organizes competitions in voguing. The performances, which consist of various model-like movements, originated in African American environments in New York in the 1960 century. One goal of voguing is to emulate stereotypical behaviors from other walks of life and make it their own. In this way, they can parody and take over the behavior of more privileged groups – while exploring and unfolding themselves.

All photos: Sundance Film Festival
All photos: Sundance Film Festival

On their own terms. There are quick stage changes, and the participants talk fast and a lot. Kiki in other words, requires an experienced viewer, and so it becomes clear that this is the story of the participants, not the director's. The various phenomena are not explained in detail – for example, voguing or ballroom – only the people themselves tell about themselves and the life they live. The striking absence of introduction to what we see Kiki, is in stark contrast to many documentaries that often serve as a kind of introduction to alien life and are far from our own. One danger with such an exotifying approach is that it quickly becomes a narrative om people who are very different from the often more privileged – and usually western – middle-class audience watching. This attempt to learn about others can, paradoxically, create more distance to the people the film is about, because it reinforces the perception that these are people who live remarkable lives. IN Kiki On the other hand, it is the viewer who has to adapt the story to the main characters, because it is assumed that you put in some effort to understand.

Avoids the clichés. We follow the informants – or Jordenö's colleagues, whom the director himself may prefer to describe them as – in their daily lives, while telling them what they like to do and how they solve various challenges. These passages (along with the filming of voguing) are the film's strongest side. The young people have a unique ability to put words into their own experiences. "I was created as a kid by my surroundings," says one of them, "but now I have to deconstruct it all, because I was so bad at living the way others expected." She was assigned male sex at birth, but has lived more and more as a woman in recent years. Voguing and the opportunity to take on and explore other roles and expressions have been life-giving for her. The film avoids the usual clichés about transgender people by highlighting the gender diversity, complexity and challenges of not fitting into pre-written categories. This way avoids Kiki to deliver a heteronormative success story in which participants end up as happy members of the opposite sex. Instead, the film leaves an impression on the viewer that these are evolving identities that cannot be placed in separate boxes. The youths are exploring and challenging as they constantly talk about their struggle against the heteronormative society that has always oppressed and discriminated against them.

There are no hopeless destinies or poor people we meet Kiki, but young people exploring what kind of life they can live.

Tangent the theory. The participants' focus on how they themselves never fit into the categories and identities they were assigned, and the opportunities it gave them to explore other ways of being, illustrate some important queer theoretical points. Queer theory is a collection of different perspectives on gender and sexuality that highlight how gender identity and sexuality are shaped and limited by societal norms. In a queer perspective, gender and sexuality are not understood as unchanging categories that humans cannot do anything about. Instead, the focus is on how society has created norms, and how those of us who break them are sanctioned and marginalized.

In voguing, it is quite possible to play with terms that are otherwise limited in society to what gender or social status you are attributed to. This way gives Kiki life to what may initially be widely available theoretical concepts: The images of young people exploring different behaviors and clothing styles in ways they are not allowed elsewhere make an impression. The characters in the film also talk about norms and how these impose restrictions on them. Their narrative is clear: It is not those who are wrong, but the heteronormative society that operates with strict categories and rules for how men and women should be.

It is not surprising that a movie about voguing and drag tends to queer theory, since these perspectives have been developed in close connection with disparate environments that have created sanctuaries and challenged norms related to gender and sexuality. Queer theory highlights the norm-breaking nature of showing that categories and identities we take for granted are more unstable than we think. The youths in Kiki tells stories that work the same way, by showcasing the diversity that exists.

The big picture. In a movie like Kiki, where we follow a few personal stories, it could have been quickly forgotten that the discrimination they face is due to structural and socio-economic conditions. It could have created the impression that young people are casual victims of bad families who do not tolerate minorities. But throughout the film, we are reminded that discrimination against black LGBT people, and especially transgender people, is an expression of the fact that we live in a society that systematically suppresses gender, sexuality and complexion. The rising HIV infection among diseased African Americans, and how this is being neglected by the larger community, makes it clear how discrimination is not accidental, but is linked to systematic discrimination. This becomes especially evident when one of the film's transgender characters states that she sells sex to fund medical treatment to change body and gender expression. We are also reminded of how living conditions, uneven distribution of financial resources and unequal access to health care are linked to the fact that society sanctions people on the basis of color, gender and sexuality.

Possible lives. According to trans activist Dean Spade, the lives of transgender people are often portrayed as "impossible" because forgetting that discrimination faces many is a result of tight norms. Kiki is a response to this: Here transgender people and others are not portrayed as something exotic and special, but on the contrary show how people can break with pre-established guidelines for how to live their lives. There are no hopeless destinies or poor people we meet Kiki, but young people exploring what kind of life they can live.

Kiki will be shown during the Oslo / Fusion International Film Festival at the Cinemateket in Oslo on September 6 at. September 22.00 and September 11 at 15.00 p.m. XNUMX:XNUMX. Watch program on

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