Paris is Burning

Directed by: Jennie Livingston
Distributed by: Janus Films

Written by Jeff Sparks

More than thirty years ago Jennie Livingston took her camera to the streets of New York City and explored the daily lives of the oppressed community of drag and trans people who participated in their own ballroom fashion shows. Spread over multiple houses throughout the city, these communities each had their own way of doing things. No matter which house they belonged to they were all there for the same reason- expressing themselves and simply being themselves. Largely ignored by the rest of the city, all these people had was each other. The main thing that they looked forward to was their routine ballroom shows which gave them frequent opportunities to express theirselves. Through a series of different categories, they all found their own that allowed them to show how they felt or wanted to look. Livingston captured them in a way that lets the viewer peer into their lives and see them for who they were whether that be at the balls or just hanging in the streets on hot summer nights. At the time of filming this community was a niche one. With the support that gay and trans people are receiving in our modern world, it’s evident the impact that these people had. Livingston’s documentary allowed them to reach many other areas of the world and influence other like-minded people around the globe. To this day, the film is still shown at various film festivals. 

“Paris is Burning” introduces us to many people from this community but the most memorable has to be Venus Xtravaganza. As a teenager, she realized that she didn’t feel like she belonged where she was so she ran away from home and made her way to New York where she met Hector Xtravaganza, the man who started the house of Xtravaganza. He welcomed Venus into the house and that is where we meet her in this documentary. In one personal scene, Venus lies on her bed and talks about her hopes for her future. She wants to complete her sex change, she wants a house and to be with a man that she loves. She wants a car. She wants to be a famous model but she also wants her privacy. ‘I want this. This is what I want” she determinately says. This particular interview showcases what a raw and real person she was. In other scenes, Venus offers insight on difficult subjects such as prostitution, homophobia, and anti-trans violence. In one scene she tells a terrifying story of when she was attacked by a man when he found that she was transgender. It’s a horrifying story that is reminiscent of the hate against trans people that we still see today. “Paris is Burning” as a whole portrays its subjects on a personal level that was missing from the film industry at the time. Venus Xtravaganza in particular is a notable example of the human element that the film contains, which solidifies its authenticity.

Venus was tragically murdered in December 1988. The film doesn’t focus on her death much, but the news comes as a gut punch. This news comes toward the end of the film, and it changed the context of the previous hour or so of the film for me. Violence against trans women is something that is unfortunately far more prevalent today. “Paris is Burning” isn’t just a film about who these people were, it’s a documentation of their successes and their struggles. Three decades later gay and trans people can still watch this film and relate to it on their own level. Like with the others, Venus’s name wasn’t known very far at the time, but thanks to “Paris is Burning” the world can see who she was as long as copies of the film exist, even if her limited footage in this film is all we have of her.

“Paris is Burning” Trailer

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