Paris Is Burning is a controversial documentary whose baggage forces viewers to ask themselves difficult questions about privilege, identity, and class. The film was a hit with critics and indie audiences, and in the decades since its release, it’s become a staple of queer cinema. But most of its subjects have died over that period, due to factors like transphobic violence, poverty, and AIDS. Existing only in memory, enshrined in celluloid, they are and were stars, but they didn’t get to see the fruits of their culture become mainstream and profitable. Rewatching the movie is a bittersweet experience, because there is deep beauty in the ballroom scene, but the sun always rises and parties always end. Hyperallergic interviewed director Jennie Livingston about the film ahead of its release through the Criterion Collection. We spoke about Paris Is Burning’s origins, its complicated legacy, and how even after 30 years, it acts as its own safe space within queer cinema. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hyperallergic: The new restoration looks incredible. Could you tell me about the process of bringing it to life with the Criterion Collection?
Jennie Livingston: The Sundance Institute, Outfest, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive performed the restoration in 2015. Each year, Sundance screens a film that is part of the history of the festival, so those three institutions partnered to create a new digital print of the film.
What’s cool about it from a technical standpoint is that the film was shot in 16mm, and the aspect ratio is preserved. I think 16mm has a nice, human scale. If you’re just talking to other human beings, 3:4 is so nice. Back in the late ’80s, there weren’t small cameras that were digital, so you had to shoot in 16mm and raise a lot of money in the process. It meant if you did get distribution, which was rare for a documentary back then, then you had to blow it up to 35mm. When you do that, because the shape is stretched out rather than 3:4, you had to cut off parts of the frame. You had to go through the entire print in a lab and say with this shot ‘cut off the top,’ this one ‘cut off the bottom.’ So the version that was theatrically distributed and released on DVD was missing portions of the frame. But by returning the film to its original aspect ratio, not only are you seeing more information, but also the way it was shot.
H: New York in the late 1980s was such a specific place. With everything going on, how did you first discover the ball scene?
JL: I moved to New York in 1985 after I graduated from Yale, and at the time I wanted to be a still photographer. My first real job was at a local newspaper, the Staten Island Advance, and I didn’t like it. After, I really thought I would like to get into film, so I took one filmmaking class at NYU. It was a habit of mine to study people, because I had studied photography where the background was Walker Evans; a tradition of street photography, of going out and looking at the things people do. One afternoon I was in Washington Square Park with my camera, and I met some young men who were dancing. They looked great. I asked to photograph them. They said yes, and we started talking and I asked them about their poses. They said they were ‘voguing.’
As a result of that conversation, I ended up going to a ball. I brought a little wind-up camera and a friend to do sound, and I was astounded. At the time I was a young sort of proto-queer person. That there were people playing with gender, embodying gender transition, or simply commenting with the way they were moving and the way they were speaking on the construction of identity, was all pretty mind-blowing to me. I was this young person trying to figure out how to be queer. I’d identified as a lesbian for many years. I now identify as genderqueer, but if I look at myself as a young person, I always envisioned myself as a boy. And so I think the fact that people in the ball world were embodying identification that wasn’t so simple was really transformative and beautiful. I was attracted to figuring out how to tell that story, and as I got to know these people, it wasn’t about just the culture, but about individuals, from older drag queens to young trans women to butch queens who were all part of the scene. I went to more balls, taking a lot of pictures and getting to know people.
And at the same time, a lot of people were dying of AIDS. I became an activist with ACT UP. The downtown scene, where people were largely white and well-educated, had an attitude of ‘We can change this through activism. We can get the government to agree this is a crisis.’ The entitlement of educated people. And the uptown scene with the ball world, because it was African American and Latinx, there wasn’t a sense of ‘We can save the world.’ It was ‘We can create our own world, and that world will sustain us.’ Those two queer worlds were not connected. I didn’t know anybody who was in both. I worked on Pose, and the episode I directed had ACT UP members becoming friends with ball participants, and they all do activism together. But that never happened. I was fortunate to be a young queer person growing up and having access to those two separate worlds.
H: How do you feel about Paris Is Burning’s legacy as a queer film that gave its subjects so much room to speak and create?
JL: I thought that what they had to say about the culture they were living in was so profound. When you live on the margins, you have to understand the mainstream to construct your identity and survive. It behooves anyone who lives comfortably in a gender binary to listen to people who live outside of that binary. I think Paris is Burning presents the viewer, whether they identify as part of the community or not, with individuals whose dreams and perceptions are really comprehensible. I think it’s something the film did well in its time and to this day, that people who are nonconforming on the spectrum of gender and sexuality may find a resting place. It’s reassuring to queer viewers that somebody who is connected to us says these things and lives the way they do.
Our community has a lot of self-hate. We have a lot of difficulty feeling okay about ourselves. I think with each generation, we hope to have it a little easier than the last. I think that’s another value of the film: People can rally around it and have a lot of love for those in the ball scene and for themselves. While on the set of Pose, this woman told me she was trans, and seeing Octavia Saint Laurent was what enabled her to imagine that she could transition. I hope that is Paris Is Burning’s legacy. You make a film to make a film, but if it can actually have an impact, that’s incredible.
H: I want to talk a little about Venus Xtravaganza’s story. Sex work is part of transgender existence, with many of us calling for it to be decriminalized. How do you feel Paris Is Burning handled that topic?
JL: When getting ready for the release of this new DVD with Criterion, our goal was to only retransfer what was in the Miramax DVD from 2005. But looking through all the outtakes at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, I came across things I hadn’t seen in 30 years. We had over 70 hours of outtakes, of which we transferred 30. If you have too much information, people turn off. If you have too little, you’re not representing the real story, and there’s always a different way to tell that story. We wanted to walk a line between really respecting Venus’s dreams while also talking about how difficult her life was. Another person, another team, would have made a completely different film. There are a lot of other things we could have put more of a focus on, like sex work, drugs, the way families treat their queer children poorly.
We leaned toward the performative aspect and the found families. We tried to focus on how these people survived. Venus’s murder was the worst thing that could have happened. Willi Ninja’s success as a dancer was the best thing that could have happened. When making a film with this structure, there’s a lot we eventually left out. It’s something we struggled with.
There was a portrait of two women, Brett and Brittani, who worked with Venus. Their journey was a difficult one, and we ultimately didn’t include them in the final cut. At the time, we thought it would have distracted from the focus, because there are only so many people you can have in a film, and they weren’t in the ball world as walkers like the other subjects. Focusing on Venus made sense because she was so entrenched in the ball world. And consequently, it was necessary to talk about her murder and the hope that this sort of violence could be done with someday.
But it’s just as bad in 2020, particularly for trans women of color. The question I ask myself is if I were to recut the film, whether I would deal with Venus’s story as a sex worker with more depth. We allude to her fears, and we had her tragedy in mind when we were cutting the film, but we did construct things mainly so audiences understood what was happening, and hoped we were being truthful by not flinching at the violence that unfortunately does sometimes happen.
H: I’m curious how you found the right balance between the story you wanted to tell and relaying the stories of those in the ball world, and how conscious you were of your privilege as a white person in that space.
JL: My agenda was to tell a great story while not imposing my view, but that is a struggle. Whenever you tell a story, you have that control. In terms of my race, I felt very welcome. I was honored they trusted me, but as a white Jewish person, I knew that I wasn’t from their world. I tried to be the absolute best listener that I could, and it helped to work with a great editor in Jonathan Oppenheim. We tried to balance what people were saying without imposing our own agendas onto the film.
People were interested in talking to the camera because it gave them a voice. They were already performers and public speakers within their own community, and then I came in and told them I wanted to bring their words and images and performances and ideas to the larger world. That was appealing to people who already had a sense of expressing themselves in public. I spent an immense amount of time hanging out with people and recording audio interviews. For the first two years, we didn’t have any money to shoot, so the audio was a way to collect stories and get to know people. I wanted to hear their stories, what they had to say, how they framed their worlds, and everyone was so different. Junior LaBeija’s speech on white America is from an audio interview in his apartment. He was brilliant.
H: With much of the language and culture in the film now in the mainstream, do you think there’s a limit to how helpful visibility can be for queer people?
JL: I think there must be a limit. Speaking as a queer person, on one hand, seeing yourself reflected is very powerful. But I do think the way that people take on and appropriate and assume that they can know something when all they’ve done is see one movie is dangerous. Which is something I was thinking about with Paris Is Burning. I could have never predicted that the film was going to have a long life, and that many queer people and straight people who weren’t from that world would feel entitled to the language and culture.
I think the danger is that people will feel they know something they don’t, and that because they think they know it, they don’t need to be conscious or try to make things safer for people who are from that world. Can you turn the knowledge you have from seeing a movie into direct action? Certainly the hope is that with visibility, people will. But it’s not enough to say, ‘I love those queens. I saw them in a movie. I don’t need to worry about the fact that people are being murdered.’
H: Paris Is Burning uses language as a formal structure. Title cards introduce words invented by ball culture, and then the subjects in the following scenes talk about the terms and what they mean. Can you tell me a little about that decision?
JL: It was one structural premise we used to make the film true to the setting. For example, the word ‘mother.’ We’re all familiar with what this word means, and most of us are familiar with people who have been maternal to us who were not our biological mothers. These people are trying to create community as a means of survival, and they recreated a role that is understood in the mainstream in their own specialized way. Language is one way we structure reality, it helps with emotional and psychological survival, and so I felt it was something that I wanted to emphasize.
Ball culture used language in a very particular way. Some of their words were quite serious about things like survival and family, and others were humorous and very clever. It was something that pulled me in, and I knew from being queer and Jewish that language can have a specific help for us and others. The language was not only a way to introduce audiences to words, but also a way to point to something we all intuitively understand that language does for us.
H: What are your hopes for the future of queer cinema?
JL: I’ve been so pleased to see so many queer and trans characters on television as of late. It’s something that’s been surprising for so many queer storytellers of my generation to see this boom. Things have changed a lot since the days of Six Feet Under. Obviously there’s Orange is the New Black, Pose, and so many other shows.
I think back during the New Queer Cinema of the early ’90s, there was a lot of experimentation and risk-taking. Todd Haynes’s Poison came out the same year Paris is Burning did. A lot of queer filmmakers were trying to change the language of cinema with these stories. I would love to see queer cinema be empowered to not only include people who look like us or have stories we are familiar with, but to also break ground with form. Moonlight is a really beautiful example of what I’m talking about, because it’s not only about a Black queer man, but it’s also formally really challenging.
That’s easier said than done, and it’s really hard to get funding. I’m working on a film right now called Earth Camp One. It’s a memoir about how I lost four family members in five years, how American culture views impermanence, and the relationships we have with our parents. I’ve been working on this film for years, and I’ve finally raised the money I needed. I selfishly want to see more films like mine be able to get made, but I also want to see queer cinema open up to new possibilities. The people who do get chances to break new ground are primarily straight white men. I don’t want it to be that people like me only get to tell stories if we do it in a recognizable way.
I want for queer filmmakers to get to tell stories the way Pedro Almodovar gets to. I’m excited to see a filmmaker like Dee Rees, who is an African American lesbian, get to adapt a Joan Didion novel. Nobody questions when a straight white man wants to make a film about war or a woman; they assume he’s good for the job. They get the benefit of the doubt. I want us to have the same. Let us tell whatever stories we want. They don’t have to be our stories to be our stories. We’re going to see the world differently. It impoverishes everyone when we only see the stories that certain people want to tell. We have this rich world we’re living in, and we’re not seeing enough of it.