A montage spliced from life in the budding Harlem “vogue” and drag ball scene of the 1980s, Paris is Burning is a beat box opera of color, kitsch, wit, and style. First-time director Jennie Livingston has crafted a disturbing and inspiring documentary that focuses on the funk and spunk of an urban subculture and raises important questions on current American views of race, class, and gender. A woman who grew up in Los Angeles and was educated at Yale, Livingston might have been separated from the subjects of Paris is Burning by more “barriers” than just a camera lens. But meeting Livingston in person, dressed in globally inspired eclectic garb and speaking with the verve of an energetic, urban world explorer, it is easy to see how anyone, from diplomat to drag queen, would engage their story to her.
Reena Jana When you first stumbled upon some people vogueing in Washington Square Park in 1985, did you think that this whole scene and concept was a tongue-in-cheek one? When I was watching the movie, I felt as if it were actually very serious; it seemed as if a lot of the ball walkers were tragic heroes and heroines, attempting to mask bleak economic and social circumstances.
Jennie Livingston I never thought of it as completely tongue-in-cheek. I started out as a still photographer and was always concerned with the subjects of gender, race, class, and particularly how the media affects men and women and their views of themselves. The first ball I went to, I really didn’t know what was going on. Everyone was throwing their limbs around and chanting names. There were drag queens all over the place, being elaborately made up. Who was a woman? Who was a man? By the end of the ball, after talking to people, especially Willi Ninja, who explained the concept of the competitions, I was thoroughly intrigued. Willi told me about the language of the balls, and how serious the ideas behind the balls were, and that they actually tied into my own life. After taking a lot of still photos and beginning to get to know the participants, I was convinced that this was about more than dancing and dressing up. It was about a clash between races, the American class system, and feminism. I know the ball walkers aren’t “feminists” in the politically correct sense of the term, but what they are doing is innately feminist. A boy becomes a girl—gender is a learned thing, and these people chose to be women despite the American social convention that to be a man would be the preferable choice.
RJ So it’s more of a gender issue than a class issue.
JL I think it’s both. They want to become women because black men are devalued in this society. It’s very difficult for a poor urban black man to get an education. In a society that values money, the poor urban black man doesn’t really have a saleable commodity in himself; a woman, however, always has her body. A man of any race will want to meet and perhaps eventually support a beautiful woman; the sex change is fueled by this situation. It’s an alternative to being a drug dealer or criminal.
RJ How did the ball walkers feel when you and your crew entered their world? Did they feel as if they were being regarded voyeuristically? Or were they excited to get the camera exposure?
JL It certainly depended on the person. I spent about two years taking still photographs, so I got to know people, and I was welcomed as another spectator. The ball culture is one about image and exposure; some people did feel invaded, but that was definitely in the minority. The fear that I might have been making an exploitative film is legitimate. Any documentarian I’ve talked to who has gone into a community that isn’t their own, or even some who were in their own environments, found that some subjects dropped out, and some people just wandered in by chance, and sometimes the most unplanned subjects become the most useful to film. Like Pepper Labeija, I didn’t think I would be using the one on one interviews with him in the movie, but those very intimate conversations became a focus in the film.
It was so difficult to decide what was going to be cut. I had definite ideas which I wanted to see materialize. But you just can’t make a film that’s a polemic about race, class, and gender. There were other issues that were raised which were very near and dear to my heart, for example, religion. I perceived of the balls as a church. They happened on Sundays, they formed a bond between a set community, they offered validity to members of society who normally didn’t feel validity because of their color or their sexual orientation. I was surprised to find out what these people were carrying inside of them, like Venus Xtravaganza saying that he believed that God hated gays, or Pepper saying that he once asked a priest what was wrong with two men loving each other as long as it was love, and the priest brushed him off, telling him he would have to answer him later, and he never did. In the end, however, it just didn’t fit into the evolving structure of the film. But in one of the final shots, there are two little boys hanging out in Times Square amidst the drag ball crowd, arms around each other, smiling, saying, “It’s like a bunch of people praying together.” That really summed it up.
RJ It seemed like such a close community; the bonding between all of the house members came across strongly in the film. During the hour and a half that I was watching your film, I felt like I was part of that bond, the conversations were warm and candid. This makes me wonder, you wrote in an essay about the making of Paris is Burning that if you could change one thing about the film, you would make it “more intimate.” How so?
JL Well, I think the film is what it is. It succeeds where it succeeds and fails where it fails. As a unit, it works. But the one thing that I was disappointed with was that there wasn’t enough “streetwise” footage where you were looking at intimate moments such as a house mother advising her kids or real-life scenes of homophobia—such as a mother throwing a child out of the house because he is gay. There’s something overwrought and manipulative about doing that, though. If I was able to spend a year and a half filming, maybe I would’ve been able to capture these scenes very naturally. I realize that when you’re wanting to get these scenes specifically, you’re not going to get them. But in terms of intimacy, there is a lot going on in the film in terms of people speaking to me and the audience very openly; were not really seeing their lives through a window which is a barrier. We’re looking through a window that they’re taking us through. Unfortunately, whenever you film “real life,” you will always alter the reality by the presence of the camera. Given that documentary film is a medium where you will never get to the absolute truth, it’s just as much a truth to present people talking freely in front of a camera, you will never get any more “true” or “intimate” than trusting someone’s word.
RJ The ball world is one based on illusion—interpreting illusions of white America portrayed by the media, creating illusions of gender, class, glamour. But how much of this interpreting and creating is disillusioning for the members of the ball community? To what extent is the scene destructive?
JL There are destructive aspects, we had shot a lot of footage of people talking about how their houses weren’t really families, how kids would skip school to buy and make clothes to wear to the balls, how some had to steal to get the money to buy the clothes. Some had to turn to prostitution, because no matter how easily one of them might be able to pass [as a woman], it would often be difficult for them to find jobs that were for [real] women, because once it was discovered that they were men dressed in drag, they were fired. I think essentially the balls can lead house members to bad things, but if you think of the alternatives, entering gangs and dealing drugs, this is a more positive occupation, joining with their gay brothers and sisters and just dressing up to look fabulous. In many cases, it can lead to good things. For example, Willi Ninja has gone on to be a globally-known choreographer. But it can lead to tragic things, like Venus Xtravaganza becoming a prostitute and then eventually being murdered. In these two cases, it’s important to realize that Willi was a masculine member of the ball scene, he didn’t try to be a woman, whereas Venus was a drag queen, very feminine. There still is a level of social conventionality which has to be catered to when the ball members venture out into the outside world. There are real gender politics involved in who survives and who doesn’t.
RJ What is the most positive message you think is conveyed, then?
JL In terms of the houses, the film really enforces old-fashioned family values. It’s ironic, because the very people like Jesse Helms who will object to this film won’t realize that this is about very Christian, family values of loving and nurturing and acceptance. A lot of people would say, “You can be in my nuclear family…as long as you are straight and don’t step out of your boundaries as a woman.” But this is about the real manifestation of family values.
RJ Did you feel as if you became part of this family while filming?
JL I think I always felt like a person making a film. It was a job for me, albeit a five year job. Of course I got close to the people in the film and the crew. I felt sympathetic towards the subjects. I would like to work with people from the ball world in a dramatic form, though. They are such great actresses, being themselves! At some level, I’m always an outsider, but I got a lot closer than other outsiders would have gotten. I definitely felt comfortable.
RJ Making the film, you were able to get a lot closer to your subjects than you did when you were taking still photographs. How much of your photographic style translated into your film style? How did it compliment the vogue scene and vice versa?
JL I was influenced by people like Gary Winogrand, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, August Sander, photographers who were looking at who people were in society and also looking at gesture and the significance of gesture. I wanted to instill in the film the sense of importance in even the littlest gesture, when someone goes like this (flourishes arm). Details, the littlest things, are telling. You look at a great portrait and it’s not just the person that makes the photo compelling, but how a certain hair falls, or the way their finger is positioned. It’s detail of movement.
The fact that I was a still photographer was what got me into the ball scene. Being a photographer, I would often venture into places and scenes where I normally wouldn’t go. I go to protest marches, seedy bars, scary streets. The camera gives me courage to venture out and learn.
—Reena Jana is a writer living and working in New York. She graduates from Barnard College this year. She is an intern at BOMB.