Interview with Sara Jordenö

Sara Jordenö’s KIKI had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and its European Premiere took place at Berlinale 2016. Jack Toye spoke to Jordenö about her experience bringing a film with a queer angle to the festival.

Sara Jordenö: You know, I was very curious to see how the audience reacted. I was wondering if the queer and trans discussion that’s happening in the film was specific to the U.S. We had an amazing response at Sundance. I would say something, and everyone in the audience would whoop and cheer. I was interested to see if there would be a difference in Berlin. We know that also Berlin is an amazing and important city for queer and trans people, so I wasn’t too worried. But it was great to see that the film seems to speak outside of the U.S. even though it takes place in the U.S.

Jack Toye: I’m curious as to why directors who premiere their film in America then choose festival A, B, or C for their European premiere. We’ve just had Rotterdam before Berlin, and Cannes coming up in May… is Berlinale’s placement in the film festival circuit advantageous to you?

SJ: It was funny, because when we got Sundance, people were telling me “great, now you don’t have to worry about festivals.” And I was thinking, “No! We need to get Berlin too!” For me, as a European, this is the perfect context for the European premiere. I’ve been to the Berlinale before, and this is a Swedish/American co-production, so quite a few films from the production company have premiered here. I think the Panorama section here is just a beautiful section to be in. And of course I knew about the Teddy Award and it’s just a context I really wanted. But also, there are amazing questions during the Q&As…

JT: As a Swedish filmmaker, could you tell us a little about queer filmmaking in Sweden? Are you forced to go overseas to get films made, or is there a willing audience in Sweden at cinemas and on VOD platforms?

SJ: Absolutely. This film is about an LGBTQ subculture, but it’s not limited to that audience: there are a lot of other politics and discussions in the film too. It’s about being on the margins of society. It’s about coming-of-age. It’s about choosing families. It’s about activism and agency. We’re going to have a Swedish premiere in about a month. We’re the opening film at the Tempo Documentary Film Festival in Stockholm. There’s a huge interest there. I think questions around gender, and gender artforms, and the voguing dance scene are big things in Stockholm, yes.

JT: That’s great to hear, as I recently interviewed a Chilean filmmaker, the director of YOU’ll NEVER BE ALONE, and he revealed that in Chile, these kind of films don’t really get made and talked about. Good one, Sweden!

SJ: I should say so, too. We’ve had a lot of support from Sweden. I’m trained as a visual artist, and this is my first documentary feature: my first venture into the film world. Very early on for me, the Swedish Film Institute and also the Swedish Television supported the film. So not only are they supporting a visual artist, versus seasoned documentary makers, but they saw that this community and subject was worthy of their support. So we have had a lot of artistic freedom. If we had had to work with a broadcaster in the U.S. then maybe then we wouldn’t have had final cut. But we have been able to do exactly the film that we wanted, very much due to the support from Sweden. Thanks, Sweden!

JT: The Swedish Film Institute’s UK equivalent, the BFI, have put together a £1 million Diversity Fund pot of money this year, so that films made by people other than white, straight men, about a subject matter other than a heteronormative narrative can get made. From a UK perspective, your film and production company tick every single box there.

SJ: That’s amazing that they created a fund for anything else other than the stories that dominate!

JT: It’s equally apparent that certain films aren’t getting made in the UK…

SJ: It’s always difficult to fund a documentary. I have been pitching for many years now and it’s not easy to push through a story like this. People automatically think that if it doesn’t fall into the box of that white, cis, male category coming-of-age story then it will be seen as a small film, even if it’s not. I knew really quickly that this was a big film, a really important film. Just because the people in it have been, and are marginalised, doesn’t mean it is not an important story. So I find it very interesting that in the UK there is this fund and this effort to diversify.

“I’m different, I’m not trans… but I am.”

JT: It would be great to get you over to the UK to act as a case study for getting this sort of thing done correctly.

SJ: It’s always down to the producers. They’re the ones that are taking those invitations for me. I want to go to the UK really badly with this film, because the UK has a great ballroom scene as well.

JT: There are two main protagonists in the ensemble who really stick in my mind, two days after watching the film: Twiggy Garcon and Gia Love. Gia amazed me in the Q&A: she spoke with the rhetorical skills of a seasoned politician, yet she’s a young lady in her twenties. How did you discover the worlds of Twiggy and Gia?

SJ: I met Twiggy and ChiChi and we really hit it off – there was chemistry. Then they invited me to make a film about the Kiki scene and their leaders. To do a smaller project initially, but it grew really fast as they’re just amazing. You only met two of them at the Q&A, but they’re better in real life! We decided the only way I could do it would be if Twiggy could come in as a co-writer. It was through Twiggy that I then met the other people like Gia.

JT: Is that quite a unique way to make a documentary – one of your subjects helping out on the production?

SJ: I think so, yes. It seems to be something that documentary filmmakers are afraid of, because it might somehow mess with their authorship or artistic freedom. But I never felt this. I just felt that it helped. The film highlights the importance of access, and the gatekeepers who give you access. Those people like Twiggy are incredibly important.

JT: What really resonated with me at the Q&A was the comparison with PARIS IS BURNING. Gia said that all of the lives from that film, that generation from the 1970s, weren’t documented in the right way – they’ve been censored from history by the lack of a documentary filmmaker coming along and recording their lives.

SJ: Sure, there should be many more films about the ballroom community.

JT: Vanity Fair said, after they saw your Sundance premiere, that the film “makes you feel good about the future, which is pretty hard to do these days.” Were you aware of what a powerful documentary you were assembling, as each edit and each year progressed?

SJ: Yes, I was aware it was important. I met Gia when I attended these Kiki governance meetings, and she’s an amazing speaker. I told Twiggy, “we need to do an interview with Gia!” So the first interview was in April 2012, but she made an amazing journey since then. It was very much a psychological journey, and her politics have developed a lot too. That was fascinating: we did an interview in the film when she’s struggling with everything, she says, “I’m different, I’m not trans… but I am.” Then we built an interview later, around showing her that clip, when she was more distant from the Gia of a couple of years ago. That was particularly powerful for me. You don’t see a person who’s finished. Usually when you see a person of trans experience they have completed their transition as a trans woman. Maybe you don’t always see the doubt. It’s very generous of Gia to share that too. That was a choice she made. Even though she’s so strong, and I wanted to show her strength, to understand her, I wanted to show her when she was struggling too.

JT: She feels like someone you would definitely want on your team! Part of the film was shot in 2012, the last election year. In 2016, in another presidential election year in the U.S. I wondered how you viewed the current crop of political candidates?

SJ: I can’t speak for the community specifically on the candidate they like. I think there’s a big fear that it’s going to be a Republican. That’s a real fear. The Hilary/Bernie thing, I haven’t decided either. There’s a lot of factors and it’s not as easy as saying you want the first female president. You have to look hard and closely at their politics and see who you can trust . Bernie is very leftist for the U.S, so I’m personally impressed with him, but I also think there comes a point where you ask, “What can you get away with in the election in that country?”. I’m just terrified that the conservative forces are going to win as usually it goes that way, there’s a Democrat and then there’s a Republican. If you look at history it should now swing…

JT: In the film, Zariya touches on the issue of funding the expenses of transitioning, namely sexual acts for cash. Did you as the director have to remain apart from the morals of the certain things in the film? Were there certain areas you wouldn’t go with the camera?

SJ: I was surprised that they wanted to go there, in the panel discussion where they speak openly about it all. That was one of the last things. I’m very glad that Zariya wanted to talk about it. We had a lot of discussions about whether she should. I think it helps that people like Janet Mock have talked this – she’s an important voice for people of trans experience. She wrote this book Redefining Realness where she talks about having to do sex work to be able to have surgeries related to her transition. That has helped take away some of the enormous stigma around it. But I’m proud, as it’s something we need to talk about and critique openly. It’s part of the reality for many people. For me, it happened before I started doing the project. When I was younger, I was very active in feminist discussions and I thought that sex work was always a really hurtful thing. This film has changed my view. I got to know people that actually do sex work, and people in the Kiki scene. I think that if there’s a discussion or criticism around it, it should come from people who have experienced it.

Find out more about Sara’s film at


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