Exclusive Interview: Paris Is Burning director Jennie Livingston “I always felt that the balls were a kind of a church, a kind of ritual space”

To mark the thirtieth anniversary of Jennie Livingston’s (they/them) landmark documentary Paris Is Burning, the Criterion Collection have issued the film on Blu-Ray for the first time in a stunning 2K digital restoration. Also available through Criterion on DVD, the new edition on both formats features over an hour of previously unseen outtakes, a new interview with LGBT film historian Jenni Olson and a full episode of The Joan Rivers Show featuring Livingston and ball community members Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, Freddie Pendavis, and Ninja. There’s also a feature length audio commentary track from 2005 with Livingston, Freddie Pendavis and Willi Ninja, and the film’s editor Jonathan Oppenheim and a beautiful booklet accompanying the discs with an essay by filmmaker Michelle Parkerson and a 1991 review by poet Essex Hemphill.

Paris Is Burning remains Livingston’s only feature to date, they joke that they could “win trophies for world’s slowest filmmaker”. They are however currently in post-production on their second non-fiction feature, Earth Camp One and last year saw their television directing debut with an episode of Pose, the Emmy-winning series set in the world of ball culture that is heavily inspired by Livingston’s film.

Cast, 1991: Back row: Angie Xtrava, Kim Pendavis, Pepper Labeija, Junior Labeija. Middle row: David Xtrava, Octavia St. Laurent, Dorian Corey, Willi Ninja. Front: Freddie Pendavis
Courtesy of Janus Films

The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke with genderqueer filmmaker Jennie Livingston last week about returning to the film thirty years on for this new edition; selecting outtakes from over 70 hours of footage; their experience of working with Harvey Weinstein, whose company Miramax originally distributed the film; bringing ACT UP and the ball community together in the episode of Pose they directed; and the controversy around them making a film about ball culture as an outsider to it.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Returning to Paris Is Burning after nearly thirty years were you struck by what’s changed and what’s remained the same in this country? And what was it like sorting through all those hours of unused footage, deciding what to include in the outtakes for this new Criterion release?

Jennie Livingston: “I hadn’t seen the outtakes in thirty years because they are at UCLA in vaults and that footage had never been digitised until now. So the first reaction I had was profoundly personal. It was just, here are images of people, many of whom are no longer alive and the people who are alive are so much younger in the footage. I was seeing images of myself as a baby queer! So that was one thing. Then seeing New York in a different time period was so profound. The city changes and doesn’t change. New York City is really a big character in the film and it’s certainly a big character in the outtakes. So I had a lot of feelings. I don’t want to say it was nostalgia because that was a rough period and the people in the film were struggling, many people in my life were struggling, because of the AIDS pandemic. So I wouldn’t call it nostalgia, but wow, it was powerful to see it.”

Friends at a Brooklyn ball, 1986 © Jennie Livingston

“Obviously given the issues that the film concerns itself with, you can’t help but think of the murders of trans women of colour that haven’t let up. When the film was completed in 1991, we could not have conceived of an African American president. Certainly the country has moved on in ways we couldn’t have imagined and has not moved on in ways that we would have expected. The social safety net that people were living without then, people are still living without now. Thinking about that, I would say I was closest to Dorian and Willi and they both died years ago now. Dorian in 1993 and Willi in 2006, and then so many other people who have died because there just isn’t great health care, well, for anyone, but particularly for people without money, and particularly not for people of colour, or queer people, or trans people without money. And as this current pandemic reaches out I think we’re going to see that in how the health care systems that each region has set up, it’s going to have consequences. Those issues are really timely. How does a society care for its most vulnerable people? And our society is not even caring for its moderately vulnerable people.”

Pepper LaBeija in Paris Is Burning (1990)

You shot the film on 16mm, so what does this new 2K restored version allow us to see that people who saw the original theatrical release or earlier VHS and DVD releases won’t have seen?

“Well, we shot it on 16mm because that was the only way to shoot a non-fiction film at that time. When we got a distribution deal from Miramax and they decided to take it out to theatres it had to be blown up to 35mm. Very few theatres had 16mm projectors, unless it was a school or museum. Because of the shape of 16mm is 4:3, and the blown out shape of 16:9 is obviously very different. So in creating a blowup you would have to make a shot by shot decision ‘are you going to cut off the top or the bottom?’ Each shot had an answer. So you go through that process. The new transfer was made with the 16mm print so it’s back to its original shape of 4:3. All the old movies were made in that shape and I think it’s a very lovely shape for a film that deals with humans. The stretched out shape is perfect for shooting in Monument Valley, you know, doing big city landscapes or great sort of action adventure setups, but 4:3 a wonderful scale for a film like Paris Is Burning. The nice thing is that you’re going to see things that the person who saw it on the old DVD, or saw it in a theatre, didn’t see. Nothing too grand, you know just a hand here, or a colour there, or a camera flare, but it’s nice to see it how we originally shot it.”

Voguer, Brooklyn ball, 1986 © Jennie Livingston

The colour looks vibrant too.

“The Miramax DVD was done in 2005 and so we did a lot of colour work then to make it right and worked with a really wonderful colourist, so it’s back to that. I think it’s true to how the original prints felt. It was great to have the film screened at Sundance again in 2015, they show one film from the festival’s history every year, but I knew then that the colour was not quite right yet, so it was so wonderful to go into Criterion and fix all that. Then when it opened at Film Forum last year I was so pleased, the colour just looked perfect.”

When you were working on the original edit for Paris Is Burning you had around 70 hours of footage in total. Your collaboration with your editor Jonathan Oppenheim was clearly a really important one. What were your guiding principles as you set about shaping the film?  

“Yes, he’s a terrific editor and I was lucky to have such a fruitful, creative collaboration. There were two things that we were trying to do, aside from just making an effective film. One was that there were so many ideas in the ball world. When you step into a ball there are so many plots going on; you are thinking about race, gender and class and capitalism, and the construction of identity and the wit and wisdom of black, Latinx and queer people, how there’s resilience in marginalised communities that carry the communities through difficult times. All of those things were so present and I wanted all those ideas to shine. But then the other task is to show the people, they are really charismatic and funny and great performers. So the approach was you’re getting to know all those ideas through getting to know the individuals, and to a certain extent getting to watch the balls. And so the sort of dialectic we were involved in was ‘the ideas or the people’, and I was always a big advocate for the ideas, being a nerd, and being attracted to the ball world in part because of people like Dorian, and Pepper, who are just so interesting to hear talk, they’re just consummate speakers. But you can’t make a film about smart people talking, you have to have emotion, you have to become involved in the characters and so Jonathan and I were always back and forth about that.”

Poster shoot group photo, 1991 Courtesy of Janus Films

“There were of course things that got left out, and so it’s fun now to be able to show some of the things that didn’t fit in the movie with these outtakes. One thing that went into the film at the very last minute that we’d taken out was Carmen and Brooke on the beach. I advocated for that. I felt it needed to be in there and I’m so glad that we put it back in because it really works well in the movie obviously.”

During one of the sequences that we get to see on the Criterion edition outtakes where Dorian is talking, there’s gunfire and a commotion going on outside on the street. She’s pretty calm though and has a great reaction to it.

“Yes, that’s another moment we would have loved to have put in the film if it had somehow fit. That was the only time during the whole shoot, that was five weeks long with a few other shoots at other times, that there was actually gunfire, which is surprising as it wasn’t unusual in the city at that time.”

Mens Sportswear category, Brooklyn ball, 1986 © Jennie Livingston

What about the other outtakes, is there anything your particularly pleased to be able to share with the world finally?

“All of it. Everything we put in I love. The bus trip to DC is really wonderful, that’s something I wish we could’ve fit into the film, just being with the ‘Ganzas on the bus, and the energy of everyone on the trip, that’s wonderful, I love that one. I always loved the religion intercut with Dorian, Pepper, Venus and Octavia talking about God and religion. I love that because it’s so funny. Venus is very earnest and has her saints. Pepper has a sort of wry take on the Catholic Church and Octavia feels God intended her to be trans. Then Dorian has this really funny story about how she was asked by this minster to impersonate a sort of sage from the Orient with a snake. One reason that I like that, aside from it being another thematic foray into how people in the film were and thought, is that I always felt that the balls were a kind of a church, a kind of ritual space. When the little boys out in Times Square said ‘it’s like when a group of people pray together’, I just remember filming it thinking that ‘yeah, they just stated my thesis’ because queer people do make sacred space. I love to just hear people talk about their relationship to the unseen, their take on it.”

Pepper Labeija after walking Executive Realness © Jennie Livingston

As well as the outtakes, another special feature on the discs is seeing you and some people from the film on the Joan Rivers Show from the time of release.

“For me personally it’s cringe-worthy looking at me, but I love looking at everyone else!”

Did you do a lot of big talk shows like that as part of the original theatrical release in 1991?

“Not too many. We did that one, we did Donahue, and I think we did Good Morning America. It was a documentary film, so it was shocking that we even did those, but it was Miramax, you know… There’s a lot Harvey didn’t do well, and it wasn’t so pleasant working with him and it’s really interesting in light of his conviction to think about not only…  I mean, I was not aware that he was a rapist, but I was aware that he was not respectful to me and I think a lot about the connection between assault and intimidation of directors who are women, who are gender non-conforming, and not cultivating the directing careers, or the storytelling careers, of filmmakers who are queer or women. The people that Harvey and Miramax furthered the careers of are people like Quentin, and there’s a connection between, you know, if you think a group of people deserve to be assaulted and if you think a group of people deserves to be given opportunities. I think it’s important for people in my industry to think about that connection, because you can’t be furthering the careers of people and giving them the huge resources to tell stories while you are raping them. The two do kind of go together.”

Angela Jandell walking Futuristic at a Brooklyn ball, 1986 © Jennie Livingston

Was there any kind of at least brief discussion or acknowledgement from Harvey Weinstein of the success of tParis Is Burning and what ideas you might have for future films?

“Oh no, definitely not. I just think that happened to male filmmakers. If you made a successful film as a female bodied person it was considered a fluke, like you must have lucked into it somehow, whereas if a young dude made a successful film, that was talent and people were handed opportunities. I think there’s finally a real conversation about that reality, but it’s still true now. The stats are still really grim, it’s like 94% of all films in general release are directed by males, and I think that impoverishes everyone because men want to see stories about women, not just women. The same is true of course of directors of colour, it’s slightly worse for women than for men of colour statistically speaking, and therefore very bad for women of colour in terms of visibility.”

“I think the television space is beginning to address that problem, but again not with statistical significance. I mean, you can’t point to Orange Is The New Black and Transparent or Pose and say that’s the trend. It’s still unusual and it’s still a battle for everyone who tells those stories in the television space. But it is very cheering that there are television shows that are telling the stories that the independent filmmakers of my generation were. That’s why we were making films, to tell those stories that don’t get told, and that’s why I’m still making films.”

“One of the things I’m doing, as I am sheltering in place, is cutting a film I’ve been working on for a long time, Earth Camp One,. It’s a first-person story about my family, and about loss, and about a hippy summer camp I went to, and about how uncomfortable our culture is with impermanence. I have taken a long time over it, but after many years we’re about to bring on an editor, and so now we’re looking at a more conventional editing trajectory which is incredibly exciting. I always say, to use the lexicon of the ball world, that I’d win trophies for world’s slowest filmmaker. But I’m cool with that, because it’s better to really believe in everything you do than to have done five hundred things just so you can say you’ve done five hundred things. A happy medium would be great as well though!”

You mentioned Pose, People have always been interested in Paris is Burning, but I think with RuPaul’s Drag Race firstly, then more directly with Pose, balls have been really prevalent in popular culture again haven’t they. Could you talk a bit about that and how you’ve been involved with Pose in an advisory capacity and then directing an episode on season 2?

“I wouldn’t say I was advisory on Pose. I have the consulting producer credit I think largely because Pose draws very heavily from Paris Is Burning. Originally Ryan was going to option Paris Is Burning and call the series Paris Is Burning, so I think I have the credit because it’s such a source for the television show. I can take no credit for having created those characters except for many of them are based on Paris. It obviously has its own thing, it would be impossible to simply base a TV show on Paris Is Burning, it’s a 78 minute movie.”

Indya Moore and Angel Bismark Curiel in FX’s POSE, season 2 episode 7 ‘Blow’,
directed by Jennie Livingston.


“I loved directing the episode. To direct on something that I as a director had such a deep connection to was really special. It was such a nice cast, such a lovely New York crew and I got assigned this episode where ACT UP people joined with ball people, which wasn’t really realistic. I was in ACT UP and I was very involved with a lot of ball people making Paris Is Burning and the worlds did not cross at all. But you know it’s poetic licence that the show took and it was so fun to direct this episode where they put a giant condom on a house. I know Peter Staley, and it’s based on the action he actually did for TAG. It was really fun the day we were shooting the condom scene and Peter Staley showed up with his dog. I think it’s wonderful that this show brings that world, and that moment in time and that era of the ball world, which obviously still exists, to television and to younger viewers, it’s fun. It’s not how I would have done it, but I think that it’s really fun as a director to work on something that you have a knowledge of, but it isn’t how you’d do it. It’s a chance to practice your craft and think about how other people do things, and just be part of something that isn’t your baby, but that you have a big connection to. So I’m glad they did it and I’m proud of the work that I did on that episode and I just loved connecting to that cast. I love the fact that Ryan and company made such an effort to cast trans people as trans characters. It had been done before, but not with such energy and it makes a big statement.”

Butch Queens in Drag, Brooklyn ball, 1986 © Jennie Livingston

Pretty much every interview with you I’ve read will ask about you making the film as a white person and as as on outsider to ball culture, I wonder is that is something that’s been placed on the film retrospectively to some degree rather than an issue you encountered at the time when you were making the film?

“Yeah, I mean that’s a great way to phrase that question, because I would say at the time…it’s not for me to say it wasn’t an issue because I don’t know what people felt, right, I can’t say they didn’t have feelings, that’s not for me to say. But I will say that as a white person from a different socio-economic sphere walking into the ball world I never felt unwelcome, I never felt “othered”. This wasn’t the age of the Internet, there’s was no online looking into the ball world, so if you knew about balls it was because you knew people in real life who handed you a flyer and invited you. There was no casually running into it. And so anybody who was there, including white ball participants like Ben Ninja, it was just assumed you knew somebody and they were therefore welcome. And I think that the people I talked to were very eager to tell their stories. I never said the film was gonna become a big film because the whole time we were shooting it we didn’t have money to finish making it. So I honestly didn’t know if it would be a completed film or not, but I hoped it would be. I think the truth is with any non-fiction, whether you’re talking literary or documentary films, it’s often somebody from outside the world, whether it’s a man making a film about women or somebody who’s middle class making a film about underclass, or working class people. I had a similarity in terms of being queer and being gender non-conforming, but I’m not black, I’m not Latinx, I didn’t grow up in New York, I was new to New York, so many things were different. But I think the reason I was empowered by the people that I talked to to make the film was that they saw that I really was excited tot talk to them. They saw that I had a love for their world and I had a couple of years of getting to know people and earning their trust before I raised the money to shoot the film. They knew it was a documentary, they signed a release that said it was a documentary, and everyone who participated did so because they saw value in being able to speak up about their world and their view of the wider world.”

Venus Xtravaganza in Paris Is Burning (1990)

“I think now in 2020 there’s a different conversation about people telling their own stories, which is really important conversation to have. I will say documentary film is still not simply people who look one way making films about people look one way. There are very valuable films about different kinds of people by different kinds of people, and I think it’s really problematic to say ‘that’s not your story to tell’. Does that mean the only stories I can tell are about Jewish queers who went to Yale? I hope not, because I don’t want to see them! Even though I am right now making an autobiographical film.”

“I think particularly when you are talking about people who don’t get to make many films, i.e. queer women. I don’t have a problem with someone saying ‘I’m a black person and looking at that film I feel an African American or Latinx person would have made it differently and I’d like to see a film about the ball world made from someone inside it’. That’s a really reasonable statement. Like bell hooks’ critique was ‘I didn’t feel good about it as black woman’, that’s cool, that’s really her reaction. Unfortunately in that piece, which has been circulated widely, she never said ‘and there were a huge number of queer African American and queer Latinx people who loved the film and felt validated by it’. So I wished that she’d acknowledged that her feelings were not global to all people of colour and that queer people had a hunger to have a film that reflected their world and loved the film and embraced it. I can’t say everyone did, I don’t know everyone, but to this day it’s a very beloved film amongst queer people of colour and trans people, because it reflects people who for younger people are their queer or trans ancestors, and for all of us, they have so much to say about queer and black queer and Latinx queer wisdom and resilience, and even I would say spirituality.”

Body Category, Brooklyn ball, 1986 © Jennie Livingston

“Sometimes when that argument about who gets to tell what stories happens it often gets aimed at people who don’t get to tell that many stories anyway. ‘That woman…’ I define as genderqueer, but whatever, ‘that white woman made that film and she shouldn’t have’. No one ever says ‘that straight white man who didn’t go to war shouldn’t have made that film about war’, or ‘he shouldn’t have made that film about a woman’, no one ever sys that! The irony of not really seeing that. Again, I’m not saying that if somebody doesn’t like the film they should like it, but in a way the problem isn’t that occasionally a queer white woman makes a film about queer people of colour, the problem is that most of the films get made by white straight men who tell all of our stories and get all of the money to tell all of our stories. So what needs to happen is just more people who look like me or look like Cheryl Dunye or look like anyone that isn’t that image of that hot young male director get to make films. Unfortunately that reality was true back in 1987 when I started making Paris Is Burning and is still the reality  in our industry, and that can’t change rapidly enough. And it is changing but not rapidly enough for my feelings.”

Willi Ninja in Paris Is Burning (1990)

Finally, is there an LGBTQ+ film, play, book, piece of music or artwork that’s particularly resonated with you over the years or something current you’re enjoying?

“How do you even answer that?! There’s so much, right! OK, I’ll throw two things at you. One thing that always hit me really hard back in the day when I was a young person falling in love with cinema, made by a queer filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. It’s a love story between an older German woman, Emmi, who’s a cleaner played by Brigitte Mira who was a great German actress and a younger Moroccan guest worker, Ali, played by El Hedi ben Salem. So it’s an inter-age, inter-racial love story. That’s a great queer film, even though there’s nobody queer in it, it’s very queer and is about people being “othered” and marginalised. So that’s something in terms of film history that’s very important to me.”

Brigitte Mira and El Hedi ben Salem in
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul/Angst essen Seele auf (1974)

“And to talk about something I saw very recently by a woman who’s not queer, but is a great playwright Katori Hall, she’s an African American playwright who wrote who The Mountaintop and Our Lady of Kibeho, and other great plays. Her new play, which now you can’t see because we can’t see anything, but before it all closed down I did just see her new play The Hot Wing King. It’s about four gay men who live in a house in Memphis and it’s terrific.”

Katori Hall’s The Hot Wing King. Photo: Monique Carboni.

The Criterion Collection edition of Paris Is Burning is available on Blu-Ray and DVD now. Head to the Criterion website here for more details or to order the film.

DIRECTOR-APPROVED SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES

  • New 2K digital restoration, supervised by director Jennie Livingston, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New conversation between Livingston, ball community members Sol Pendavis and Freddie Pendavis, and filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris
  • Over an hour of never-before-seen outtakes
  • Audio commentary from 2005, featuring Livingston, ball community members Freddie Pendavis and Willi Ninja, and film editor Jonathan Oppenheim
  • New interview with LGBT film historian Jenni Olson
  • Episode of The Joan Rivers Show from 1991, featuring Livingston and ball community members Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, Freddie Pendavis, and Ninja
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by filmmaker Michelle Parkerson and a 1991 review by poet Essex Hemphill

Paris Is Burning was restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive in conjunction with Sundance Institute and Outfest UCLA Legacy Project. Preservation was funded by Sundance Institute, Outfest, and the Andrew J. Kuehn Jr. Foundation.

New cover by Eric Skillman. Cover photo by Jennie Livingston.

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