It’s been 15 years since Jennie Livingston’s landmark documentary took out both the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the Teddy at Berlin Film Festival.
Paris Is Burning exploded on the festival circuit in 1991, taking a total of 12 top festival awards. Livingston’s first film then broke all records for documentary audiences. Paris Is Burning one of the most seen documentaries in the history of the form. Its New York City audience record remains unbroken to this day.
This is the film that invited us into the highly competitive, fantastical world of the Harlem drag balls, created with great outrageousness by the local black and Hispanic gay communities. It’s this world that created the dance form vogueing.
Livingston captures the underground balls between 1987 and 1989 just before the rise of vogueing on the international scene. Once Madonna got introduced to it, we all know it became nothing less than a massive global phenomenon.
But before all that happened, in the rundown community halls of Harlem, decked out with a few balloons and streamers and fold-out chairs, extraordinary drag magic took place and Livingston captured its life force.
Willi Ninja, the best competitive voguer on the floor, shimmying his shoulders alternately, legs crossing, dropping to the floor, striking poses, describes vogueing as like cutting each other with knives but in a dance form. Yes, instead of street fighting, gangs of queers chose the dance-off as their preferred form of combat.
Queer Screen presents Paris Is Burning as the finale to its current retrospective series. And there’s definitely a lot of retro value to be enjoyed as the high fashion dress-ups of the late 80s take centre-stage.
The drag balls take on the catwalks of Paris as a way talking back. Ball participants walk in an ever-expanding collection of competitive identity categories that blow out the notion of cross-dressing.
There’s High Fashion Winter Sportswear, Going to School, Town and Country, Military Scene and Executive Realness. The insane array of ballroom categories shows us all up as drag performers of one kind or another.
Madonna doesn’t appear in the film. Her hit song Vogue came out in 1990 just as the film was being finished. So her shadow does cast itself over the proceedings.
One thing Madonna’s hit does demonstrate is the mainstream culture’s incredible capacity for gobbling up sub-cultural creations, then taking the credit and any cash to be made from them.
But this film shows us how vogueing originated out of this gay and trans community, who had nothing but made something truly fabulous of themselves.
Pepper LaBeija, one of the biggest stars of the scene, whose outstanding strut on the floor in glittering gold opens Paris Is Burning, says it all:
Those balls are basically our fantasy of being a superstar. I came, I saw, I conquered. That’s a ball.
Paris Is Burning screens at Dendy Newtown at 6:30pm Wednesday 28 June as part of Queer Screen’s Retrospective series. Tickets are $13.50/ $11.50. Bookings 1300 306 776 or at the Queer Screen website.