Skip To Content

    Filmmaker Jennie Livingston On Life And Loss After "Paris Is Burning"

    The director discusses her iconic documentary as well as the grief that has inspired her latest film project, Earth Camp One.

    Words were the first memes. The vernacular of black gay culture, in particular, seems to have a knack for catching on. President Obama has described himself as a "fierce advocate" for LGBT rights; the art of "throwing shade" is no longer limited to ballroom queens; and voguing — oh, miss thing, don't even get me started.

    And though the etymology of queer slang is complicated and wonderfully slippery, Jennie Livingston's 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning in particular can be credited with putting words like "fierce," "shade," "werk," "read," "vogue," and "kiki" in America's mouth.

    Armed with a camera borrowed from her documentary class at New York University, Livingston turned 23 years old at midnight on Feb. 23, 1984, at the Elk's Lodge in Harlem. She was filming scenes at the Paris Is Burning ball and, in the process, creating what would eventually become an iconic look at queer culture, race, class, and New York City nightlife in the midst of the AIDS epidemic.

    This February, after happening across my post "8 Music Videos That Pay Homage to Paris Is Burning," Livingston reached out to me on Facebook, saying that I had "made her week." A month later, I found myself sitting in the filmmaker's living room in Brooklyn with her dog, Noodles, lightly snoring beside us while we discussed the legendary film, life after her breakthrough success, and the incredible loss that has led to her current feature-length film Earth Camp One.

    Where did Paris Is Burning begin?

    Jennie Livingston: Basically, I met some guys who were voguing in Washington Square Park. I carried my camera everywhere, and I was thinking about this documentary assignment we'd gotten in my film class at NYU. And so, I was in the park with my camera and I saw these guys who were hanging out around a tree and they were posing. And they were saying things like "Saks Fifth Avenue mannequins" and "butch queen in drag." They were basically saying category names; I didn't know it. I just thought they looked great. I asked them if I could take their picture, and they said yes. And I said, "What are you doing?" And they said, "We're voguing!" I was like, "What's that?" And they told me that I could go to a ball and see it, so I went to a LGBT Community Center ball with a wind-up camera from my class and my friend came along and did sound. The only person there that night that I knew later was Venus Xtravaganza. I didn't know what was going on. I didn't know who was a man or woman, but I was enraptured.

    Those guys I met in the park said that if I wanted to know more about voguing, I should look up Willi Ninja, so I did. I spent a lot of time hanging out with Willi. He had a dance group called Breed of Motion that rehearsed at the June Laberta dance studio in midtown. And I just kind of took it from there. I went to a lot of balls with a still camera and took pictures. And I thought it'd be a great photography project because it was so visual, but the more I got ahold of what was happening and who the people were, the more I realized that this was not a photography project. This [was] about story and movement and all the things that were worth caring about. All of the things that James Baldwin wrote about were in this ballroom. How do we construct our identity? How do you live in a consumerist society while not having access? How do you love yourself when you don't look like what society says you're supposed to look like? So, I started reading crazily, reading anything I thought might relate.

    Was there a lot of written material on the ball scene at the time?

    JL: No. There was an essay by Esther Newton, who is a queer scholar, called "Mother Camp." There was James Baldwin. There was the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I mean, obviously, this is African-American and Latino culture, and I'm a Jewish girl from Beverly Hills — I have to steep myself in what the brightest people can tell me about storytelling, about African-American culture and history. I didn't think it was going to give me the right, but it would give me the information to go on.

    How much money did you raise for Paris Is Burning?

    JL: The total budget for the film was about $250,000. And then we had to spend much more — almost as much as we raised — once the film was made, on music-rights clearances.

    So many people discuss the music as being an iconic aspect of the documentary itself. How did you select the music?

    JL: The balls always played Cheryl Lynn's "Got to Be Real." They always played "Love Is the Message." They also played "Love Hangover." It was very orchestral. And then other things came in. There was a "yachting wear" category that's in the film. Kim is wearing a cap and drinking champagne. And that's the "Triumphal March" from Verdi's Aida on a record. Everything was played on records. And there was some hip-hop. There was Doug E. Fresh. And, you know, when Paris Dupree is walking to The Eurythmics, that's what was actually playing. There was a really self-contained and rich musical life in the ball world, and drawing from that was quite enough.

    Did you keep going to balls after the film was complete?

    JL: I was done. It was time for the next film and phase of my life. I really went to a lot of balls. Also, the whole era — the AIDS crisis — it was all so heavy. I needed to find my own quiet corner.

    I also felt like — and this has been written about and everything — there were people after the film was made who were like, "Great. I'm so happy it was made. Awesome." There were people who felt exploited, who felt like, "This was a big hit. You made a lot of money." And I'm not saying I didn't make money. I didn't make a lot of money. In the scheme of things, no. Having spent seven or eight years of my life [on it], it didn't add up to a lot of money. I understand that people have the perception because the film was huge for a documentary. But also, when the film broke and there was money, we had planned to give money to people, and we did. Way more than people would've been paid if there had been actors in a movie of commensurate budget. There are issues of being a filmmaker, documenting something in the world. People aren't paid for the culture they create, for who they are. And that's the journalistic ethic. It may be right and it may be wrong. I didn't invent it. I did what I was told to do in terms of what was ethical and what was correct. And I did significantly above that in terms of distributing money, but, you know, those issues around "what does it mean to represent a culture?" — a culture you are from, a culture you aren't from — are heavy issues. And there were people who were angry. A group of people [who had been in the documentary] got an attorney. The attorney came to us, and we showed the attorney the releases the clients had signed. So the attorney basically turned back to them and said, "OK, great. Now whatever she pays you, I get half." And that was unfortunate for them. A more ethical attorney might've charged the group an hourly fee for looking into the matter— or might've asked for a considerably smaller percentage.

    People have written about Paris Is Burning in terms of those issues, which is fine. You have to ask these questions. Sometimes, though, people have written about the film in a way that they don't write about other people. I think that's partially because when a queer woman makes something, we're supposed to be held to higher standards than Martin Scorsese or Michael Moore. But we all work in the same medium.

    Your current project, Earth Camp One, will be your first feature-length film since Paris Is Burning. Can you tell us about the project?

    JL: It is a memoir and an essay, and it basically started 10 years ago. I lost four family members in five years. My grandmother and mother died in 1996 within a few months of each other. My uncle died in 1998, and my brother died in 2000. My grandmother and mother died of cancer. My uncle died in a freak accident on the Long Island Expressway. And my brother died partially as a result of pneumonia, but also drug use.

    So I had this experience of having this level of loss that nobody that I knew my age had or understood. And I found that it was very isolating, not to mention difficult. People in our culture don't know how to talk about this, which really is amazing, because death is the most universal aspect of life.

    In the trailer for Earth Camp One, you say that "death is not political." That's such a powerful statement. What led you to it?

    JL: Different genres — like poetry, theater — have fashions. And what's happening right now in nonfiction film is that films are expected to illuminate a particular social, political, or environmental issue. But if you're raising money [for your film], and you're saying, "Well, actually, this is more of an essay film. It's a story I want to tell. And, yes, there are definitely political, social, and environment antecedents to talking about how we deal with mortality through the lens of my particular story." But it isn't primarily about global warming or women in Afghanistan or about a particular environment crisis.

    So, as an example, when I was making Paris Is Burning, a lot of people I went to [to talk about fundraising] felt "no one" would want to see this story, meaning no white people, meaning no middle-class moviegoers — in other words, "there aren't people of color or gay people who pay for movie tickets." I [also] had gay white people saying, "I don't think you should tell this story of that corner of the gay world. I don't think it's going to make us look good." And I had straight people of color saying, "Don't show that. That's making us look bad." And, of course, interestingly enough, Madison Davis Lacy, the executive producer who made it possible for me to make the film is a straight black man. He just saw it as a great story.

    The point is, I loved the ball world because I just loved it. I loved what I saw. I felt it was about everything I cared about: how we construct identity in a materialist culture, how people create strength and sustenance for themselves when society doesn't give it to them. So I saw it as a beautiful mixture of personal — great folks — and aesthetics — great events — and all the political events that I happened to be thinking about that time, but people didn't see it that way. They saw [the subject matter of Paris Is Burning] as obscure. And I feel like here I am again now [with Earth Camp One]. And if we, at heart, feel that death doesn't exist, or that we're impervious to pain, or that other people's pain is not as significant as ours, then everything we're doing is based on psychological and physiological lies. So I feel like there are circles of largeness around my little story.

    The movie is about my experience losing these people and about a summer camp I went to in the '70s in northern California. The connection between loss and the summer camp being that when we're young, we often want to break away from our family and find different cultural markers. My parents were not hippies, but I wanted to go to a hippie summer camp. But what happens when [your parents] leave you? We're going to lose them, so eventually — so what are the oppositions between who they, the people who made us, are and who we are and who we become? There's also animation about different conceptions of the afterlife. Every culture says that when we die, we go somewhere. Do we? Or is that just a very elegant construction related to our fear of annihilation? And if we talk about cycles of grief in a personal life, what about cycles of grief in a political life?

    It's interesting that Earth Camp One, which is grounded in your personal experience, is receiving the same resistance as Paris Is Burning did, even though that film was not in the first person.

    JL: Paris Is Burning wouldn't be hard to make now because now there's this sense that if you can pin a social or political idea on the particular story, it's OK to do. But when I was making it, no one felt that there needed to be stories for queer and trans people, barring age, race, or economics. No one felt like, "This is going to be important for these communities to have." There was a sense that maybe I shouldn't do it because of my identity.

    Were any cast members resistant because of your identity?

    JL: No. I didn't really see that. There were two people who dropped out that I'd been working with [on the film] for a long time. They decided they didn't want to do this. And I asked if I could use what I already had of them, and they were like, "Sure." So that may have been about me, or it may have been about them. I don't know. They didn't tell me. The experience was really about two things: relationship, or trust, for me in particular. I wasn't coming from a media entity. I spent two years talking to these people, so they trusted me. And then, we're talking about people who were very demonstrative, who were performers and speakers. I tended to gravitate toward the people who were talkers. And the people I like particularly, say Pepper and Dorian, who were older and had experience to bear, liked to talk. They had education and a great desire to communicate their knowledge to the camera and to me behind the camera. So I didn't feel there was a problem. I don't mean to say nobody had that issue, but if people had that issue, they weren't talking to me [about it].

    Paris Is Burning was your first foray into filmmaking and has become iconic. What's your relationship to the film now?

    JL: It's a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing to make something that turns out well. It's so hard to make a good film because there's so much that can go wrong. Any filmmaker will tell you that. People come up to me and say that the film meant something to them. Trans people do. And that's wonderful. It's every creative person's dream. You do it for your own pleasure, and you do it because you want to communicate something.

    I just think the very things that I wanted Paris Is Burning to be about — lack of access, the boundaries in society, the way we are always striving to reinvent ourselves — are things that, I feel like, I made space for that story but I haven't been able to make space for women in film. Six percent of films in distribution are by women. Part of me thinks if I'd made a film like [Paris Is Burning] and I were male, the opportunities to make more features would've come more easily.

    If you could change one thing to make it easier for women to make films, what would it be?

    JL: I feel like what's needed is a fund, or a company. And this isn't just about women, this is about queers; this is about people of color. If this were Germany, or Australia, or England, we'd have a film fund. Those countries have funds where people can get support for low-budget films.

    It seems like a lot of filmmakers are turning to programs like Kickstarter.

    JL: With Kickstarter, it's rare to get enough money to make a movie. There are people who make movies really, really, really cheaply. But when you make a movie really cheaply, what it means is people are working full-time and trying to make a movie. There are a very few exceptions where people have raised enough money through crowd-sourcing to make an entire movie, but that's usually if the film is based on content (like on a book that sold a million copies) with a ready-made fan/donor base. That's not a program for a career. I'm talking about sustainably. And this is something everyone in the industry is asking — how is our medium sustainable? Because everybody wants content for free; everybody wants to be able to immediately download something, but to make a movie that's beautiful really costs money.

    There are great films happening, of course. When I went to Sundance three years ago, there was Circumstance by Maryam Keshavarz, Gun Hill Road by Rashaad Ernesto Green, and there was Pariah by Dee Rees. And I was like, wow. This was literally 20 years after Paris Is Burning. When my film debuted, Todd Haynes and I both won Jury Prizes but but there were people who said such homophobic things about both of our films. Fortunately, not everyone did. And now, 20 years later, Sundance is fostering these great queer films. It's a different age, but I look at those filmmakers and wonder, how are they going to make their next film? There's no industry sustaining them.

    Looking forward, where are you in the process of making of Earth Camp One?

    JL: The best nonfiction films get made in the cutting room. You gather all your material and then you "write" it in the cutting room. It's the equivalent of a sculptor finding the figure in the stone. So where I'm at with Earth Camp One is that I've raised about half my money over 10 years. And I need to raise enough money to bring on my editor eventually. And I'm finding my way. I'm taking the one thing I have ownership over — my story — and bringing it out to larger audience. So many people have undergone losses they feel like they have to shut up about. Let's talk about loss and trauma in a way in which we're not afraid to think about our fragility.