I had never heard of Paris is Burning until Nate announced it was part of his Hit Me With Your Best Shot series. Since I've been embracing documentaries as of late, I was pretty excited to learn something new about a subject that I'm very unfamiliar with; the drag scene of the late 80's. I can't say that I was particularly taken with this film, but this isn't really about the film itself but about the imagery within the film, and so I have to note that I was pretty taken by the way in which many of the film's key scenes were staged and shot.
While watching Paris is Burning, I kept being reminded that documentary filmmaking is such a direct way of using imagery to explore and explain; a way to understand a particular subject through the art of exposure. For me, Paris is Burning used personified this in the way in which it made you a direct part of the action. It consumed you, it swirled around you but most impactfully, it reached out and touched you. The broad gestures and commanding presence filled every ounce of screen and made this extremely closed in photography feel larger and broader than it was.
Every turn of the catwalk, every jeer from the crowd, ever hoot and holler felt so full and explosive.
I responded to this tactic in terms of filmmaking because it felt wholly invested in the purpose of the film itself.
So, there were a countless number of screenshots that showed this fullness of presence, but for me the one that stuck with me the most was actually one of the very first shots.
Before we even see the Ball, before we even see the inside of this club and the attention grabbing antics, our attention is grabbed by the presence of Pepper Labeija as she makes her way to center stage. There is something about the way that she completely takes up the whole frame, allowing just the tiniest amount of light to come through, that feels so telling of the remainder of the film. It's almost as if she's being drawn to the light, it's presence peering out over her shoulder.
This is a film about big personalities all seeking a way to express themselves and be heard, be accepted and be special. This is a film about stepping out into the spotlight.