Director Dee Rees, whose narrative film PARIAH (an expansion of the celebrated short of the same name) debuted at Sundance this year, is the guest curator for Ira Sachs and Adam Baran’s Q/A/F this month. Her selection is Jennie Livingston’s seminal 1990 documentary, PARIS IS BURNING. Livingston debuted her film at Toronto in 1990 before bringing it to Sundance and Berlin in 1991, taking home the Sundance Documentary Grand Jury Prize and Berlin’s Teddy Award. Miramax acquired the film, which had an incredibly successful theatrical life, and has in the two decades since its release become a mainstay of university courses on film and cultural studies.
Livingston gained surprising access to the drag ball culture of NYC’s African-American and Latino gay and transgender communities in the 1980s – marginalized subcultures in already marginalized communities who had never before seen any kind of exposure in the mainstream. The film profiles a number of Houses – essentially drag surrogate families who took care of one another and performed together – allowing its members to reveal their backgrounds and aspirations. While there’s plentiful scenes of the drag balls – competitions with a dizzying array of categories celebrating fashion, dancing, attitude, and male or female “realness” – the film doesn’t become a competition doc (a subgenre that of course didn’t truly develop in a significant way until much later). Instead the film offers a remarkable in-depth look at individuals who the white, straight, affluent, male mainstream never considered at all. Decades later, PARIS IS BURNING retains its power and poignancy, able to balance a complex consideration of sexuality, gender, race, class, and community while also being visually extravagant and entertaining. Any documentary fans who have not yet seen this film are doing themselves a disservice.