It can be easy for certain kinds of films to feel overly voyeuristic. Any work that offers a peek into a world that’s completely unfamiliar to much of its audience risks keeping viewers at arm’s length, or turning its subjects into a mere curiosity. But the new film Kiki avoids this mistake as it revisits a subject first explored in the landmark 1990 documentary Paris is Burning: the New York’s underground ballroom scene. Directed by Sara Jordenö and co-written by Twiggy Pucci Garcon, Kiki feels like it’s entirely in the hands of its eponymous heroes, the Kiki community—a newer subset of the original ballroom scene made up of LGBTQ youths of color.
Ballroom culture itself—whose participants compete in organized dance-offs, flamboyantly posing for a cheering crowd while wearing elaborate costumes—has thrived in New York for generations as a space for LGBTQ people of color. As Jordenö tries to illustrate, it’s a minority within a minority, a safe haven for gender expression and stylized femininity that might be rejected or even met with threats of violence elsewhere. And yet, Kiki includes surprisingly little footage of the competitions, or “balls,” themselves. Instead, the documentary concentrates on seven participants, allowing them to narrate their own stories. At a moment when trans rights, which had experienced tentative progress in recent years, are increasingly under threat, Kiki (in select theaters and available on demand on Friday), feels both relevant and hopeful. The film is a beautiful celebration of a subculture that’s still struggling to win the full respect it deserves.