Director Jennie Livingston didn’t go to film school and she took a whole seven years to make the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. In many ways it seems apt to describe Paris is Burning as a cult classic – it’s a film that creates icons, offers a window into a subculture and is potentially subversive. Yet at the time Paris is Burning won a host of big awards, making it less fringe than one might expect of a documentary about the golden age of Latino and African-American gay and transgender drag balls. Filmed in New York in the late 1980’s, Paris is Burning was awarded prizes at Sundance and at the Berlin Film Festival, to name just a couple. And monoliths such as The Washington Post, NPR and Time magazine named it one of 1991’s best films. The fact that Paris is Burning didn’t win an Academy award led – in part – to an alteration in the way that the Oscars selected documentaries for future ceremonies.
Paris is Burning is worth watching for its rich insight into pop culture as much for its fabulous soundtrack. Voguing – made famous by Madonna’s 1990 hit – has it roots in the transgender balls which feature in the movie. And although it’s impossible to name one person as the dance movement’s creator, American dancer and choreographer Willi Ninja – who features heavily in the film – has been credited as refining the art of stylised runway-esque poses and dance moves. Paris is Burning is a fascinating visual delight too, from the opulent costumes to the mirrored dressing rooms and cramped tenement buildings it shows.
But there is more than surface to this film and one of the most appealing things about Paris is Burning are its contradictions. The subversion implicit in drag is offset by the surprisingly conservative aspirations and desires of some of the individuals Livingston captures, most obviously in the interviews with transsexual Venus Xtravaganza. Venus is saving for full sexual realignment during the filming and hustling to pay for this. Asked what she really wants in life, Venus reveals traditional aspirations of living in the suburbs and getting married in a church, wearing white. What Livingston captures in Paris is Burning is an ever-shifting scene of appropriation and transgression.
What the dancers covet is not simply femininity – it’s the status and power which has been denied to them. Within the opulent cocoon of the balls there is the possibility of achieving this. It’s the possibility of self-creation and the idea of being somebody, making a mark on the world and having it all. It’s over 20 years old, and depicts the experiences of a minority group, but Paris is Burning is really a study of desires common to us all.