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Doc Talk: From ‘Paris Is Burning’ to ‘My First Film’

Pepper LaBeija in "Paris Is Burning."
Pepper LaBeija in "Paris Is Burning."Janus Films

Voguing — the striking, robotic, semaphore-like dance form — has been in vogue off and on since 1990, when Madonna included it in her hit single and music video “Vogue.”

But the gritty, exuberant New York subculture that spawned the dance and much more besides was already an established phenomenon in the 1980s when Jennie Livingston began shooting her landmark documentary, “Paris Is Burning” (1990).

For seven years Livingston filmed the Harlem drag ballroom scene, a community of Black and Latinx gay and transgender people gathered in various “houses” — supportive, surrogate families headed by and named after a “house mother.” These houses would participate in the cutthroat but amicable “house balls” (the film is named after one), competing in dancing and in the creation of elaborate, often satiric costumes. The latter include such categories as Femme Queen Realness, in which male contestants are judged for their success in transforming themselves into a cisgender female; Executive Realness; and Military Realness, looks modeled after stereotypical, macho authority figures; and Bangee Realness, which is described by an emcee as resembling “the gay basher who beat you up on the way here tonight.”

It’s a humorous moment, but it refers to a grim reality. At the end an epilogue reveals that a charismatic subject in the film, a fragile, lovely youth whose vulnerability might break your heart, was murdered in a likely transphobic assault.


“Paris Is Burning” is available on Blu-ray for $39.95 and on DVD for $29.95 from the Criterion Collection.

Go to www.criterion.com/films/29647-paris-is-burning.

A scene from a selection in the CatVideoFest.
A scene from a selection in the CatVideoFest.Courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories (custom credit)/Courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories

More than a feline

Your taste and tolerance for watching cute kitties on the Internet might be put to the test by the CatVideoFest, but for lovers of the genre it is cat heaven. Or perhaps catnip. Either way, this compilation selected from countless hours of submissions, animations, music videos, and the infinite number of frolicking felines found online, ranges from wackiness to pathos, from high jinks to high drama.


In it you will learn that cats don’t just meow, but can bark like a seal and vocalize like Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” (1973); that the only big cat that can purr is a cougar, which is a very sweet sound coming from an animal that could rip your face off; and that no matter how many times a cat jumps through a box and ends up with it wrapped around its midsection, or has to be coaxed out of a Christmas tree, or naughtily knocks something over and runs away, it’s still pretty funny.

Not all the selections are fun and games. Some are stories about cats who have been rescued from dire circumstances and rehabilitated. Like the saga of Winston, a gray and white cat found battered, defeated, filthy, and infested with fleas, lying listlessly on the sidewalk. A good Samaritan took him home and saved his life.

It should be noted that some of the proceeds from the CatVideoFest are shared with local cat charities, animal welfare organizations, and animal shelters. No cats were harmed in the making of these videos, but many will be helped because of them.

CatVideoFest screens at 2 p.m. on Feb. 23 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

Go to coolidge.org/films/catvideofest.

A scene from "My First Film."
A scene from "My First Film."Courtesy The DocYard (custom credit)/Courtesy The DocYard

In the making

I couldn’t get a preview screening of Zia Anger’s “My First Film” because in a sense it doesn’t exist. Described as “a desktop cinema performance that upends tenets about the meritocracy and gatekeeping apparatuses of independent film,” it is a spontaneous narrative that consists of Anger synthesizing “real-time text, spontaneous Google searches, audience directives, and AirDrops.”


The inspiration for the program came when Anger happened across her IMDb page and found that an unfinished feature film she had made for graduate school in 2012 was listed as “post-production.” Not wanting potential investors in her work to think that she had a project languishing in limbo for several years, Anger asked IMDb to remove the listing. When she checked back, she found the film still listed there and, next to it, written in red, the word “abandoned.” Undaunted, she transformed this abandoned project into something new and inventive which you can participate in creating.

“My First Film” takes place on Feb. 24 at 7 p.m. as part of the DocYard series at the Brattle Theatre. The filmmaker will participate in the program in person and be available for a post-performance Q&A.

Go to www.brattlefilm.org/2020/02/24/the-docyard-my-first-film.

A scene from "Love Child."
A scene from "Love Child."Courtesy Points North Institute (custom credit)/Courtesy Points North Institute

Cabin Fever in Camden

The Camden (Maine) International Film Festival, one of the best such documentary events in New England, won’t be around until September. So to fill the gap until then the festival will be presenting the second annual Cabin Fever Film Festival (Feb. 28-March 1), a shorter program of seven features, plus virtual reality exhibitions, live music, and other special events.

Love Child” begins like Afghan filmmaker Hasan Fazili’s electrifying, eyewitness documentary “Midnight Traveler” (2019): parents, Iranian in this case, hastily pack their bags to escape imminent death at the hands of those in power.


Unlike the subjects in Fazili’s film, these parents are not married to each other and their 4-year-old son was born out of wedlock, a grave violation of the moral code which if discovered could result in a death sentence. They also are more fortunate in that they are not shunted from one refugee camp to another or attacked by nationalist thugs. Instead they escape to Turkey without incident, settle into a nice apartment with friendly neighbors, and land jobs as teachers.

But their security is tenuous — any moment they might be returned to Iran and face a death sentence. What was supposed to be a brief interlude of weeks or months in Turkey until they found permanent residence in the United States or Canada turns into six years, with no resolution in sight. The stress builds, their relationships fray and mend, and as the international mood turns against refugees, their prospects dim. They are just three of the over 70 million displaced people in the world uprooted by catastrophe and seeking asylum.

“Love Child” will screen Feb. 29 at 1 p.m. at the Camden Opera House.

Go to bit.ly/37xVf7t.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.