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Paris may have burned, but the ashes are still hot!
on 4 June 2009
I saw repeated clips of this documentary while dancing on Sunday nights at Horsemeat Disco in South London, and made my mind up to find and watch the film. I'm so glad I did.
PIB provides us with painfully honest insight into the lives of the poor, largely black, gay, disenchanted New York youths who relied on the Harlem drag ball culture for their only source of personal and socio-familial identities. Through belonging to the various cultural 'Houses', these kids (some shockingly young) found a place where they could be themselves and celebrate their sexual, social and racial identities without fear. Bold and beautiful if home spun, the Balls they attended were a life focus for many of the youth featured in the film.
Rivalry and passion are all there in this subcultural exposé, but unlike their straight counterparts on New York's streets, these gay kids used dance to air their differences and settled for being 'out-shaded' as a means to calm bad air or disputes. Theatrically utopian as it may sound, would that modern day gang members would resort to such non-lethal means as dance to settle grudges!
PIB is as much about inspiration and dreams as it is about the hottest dance movement ever to collide with this world. When voguing, these kids can become the stars they so desperately want to be. There are no economic or social barriers in dreamland, which is where their dancing takes them, as individuals and as a group. To see this astounding aspirational narrative played out is at once a privilege and a sad indictment of America's inclination to negate her forgotten youth.
With many of the film's main protagonists working as hustlers and prostitutes to survive, it is ruinously ironic that a rudimentary internet search reveals how the 'families' in the film have been decimated by AIDS. What the film displays in rude definition is that dreams and fantasies can only provide a limited protection and that too much dreaming can be as dangerous as none.
It is hurtful and deeply disturbing to know that such young, vibrant, creative and beautiful individuals are gone. What is doubtless is that the Paris they created has scorched its indelible mark on the cultural subconscious of the modern world - a fact which would plainly thrill all the mothers and children of every House, living and dead.
If Paris truly burned, the epicentre of it's heat would be a drag ball in Harlem.