Paris is Burning

This week’s readings all focused on the cerntral question surrendering the making of the documentary Paris Is Burning: is it ok that a white female filmmaker made a movie about gay and black and Latino queerness? Paris Is Burning was accused of inspiring voyeurism in audiences, exploiting its subjects, and reaffirming white priveldge (Hilderbrand 133). In her writing on the documentary, black feminists writer Bell Hooks criticized the documentary. She argues ” Jennie Livingston approaches her subject matter as an outside looking in. Since her presence as white woman/lesbian filmmaker is “absent” form Paris is Burning it is easy for viewers to imagine that they are watching an ethnographic film documenting the life of black gay ‘natives’ and not recognize that they are watching a wok shaped and formed by a perspective and standpoint specific to Livingston” (151). Would the documentary have been more accepting to Hooks if we heard or saw Livingston interviewing the subjects in the film? At the same time, is taking this approach what constitutes thre artistic choices as a documentatiran? In his article The Subversive Edge”: Paris Is Burning, Social Critique, and the Limits of Subjective Agency, Phillip Brian Harper raises similar questions. He writes, “the journalistic suppression of the queens’ subjectivities in favor of Livingston’s is a function not only of the potent auteurism that conceives the filmmaker, per se, as cultural author but also of a governing discourse that  conceives the documentary filmmaker as cultural authority” (98).  In other words, Livingston point of view, or the documentary itself, is not only what makes her the filmmmaker who has the choice of what is seen, but also becusase of the subject matter, becomes the historian. Harper continues “The extent of the authority is probably best suggested by its conceptualization in terms not of artistic creation but of scientific discipline: consider, for instance, Vincent Canby’s declaration that in Paris Is Burning Livingston “studies” her subjects “with the curiosity of a compassionate anthropologist” (99). To complicate this notion further, if we were to look at the film in such a way, are we in a sense distancing ourselves from the world we are in fact being brought into by watching the film? By doing this, are we objectifying the subjects and thus exploiting them? Harper believes so. He claims ” Livingston could not but exploit once she determined to undertake her documentary project” (99). Does Livingston have the right to make a documnetatry like this at all? In an interview, one of the drag queens featured in the documentary said, “Thank God, somebody [like Jennie Livingston came and did it” (Hilderbrand 124). Is this just that simple? Is any exposure better for a misunderstood source and under represented community? I do see the ethical complications of having a white woman make a documentary about a minority community, but after reviewing all of the articles, I can’t help but wonder, no matter how ignorant I may sound, how would the film have looked different if someone from the community featured in the documentary made it? But of course it is not just about what we are seeing, but, especially in a documentary like this, whose lens are we seeing it through.

Works Cited

Harper, Phillip Brian. “”The Subversive Edge”: Paris Is Burning, Social Critique, and the Limits of Subjective Agency.” Diacritcs 24.2/3 (1994): 90-102. JSOTR. Web.

Hilderbrand, Lucas. “Three: Love Hangovers (Debates).” Paris Is Burning: A Queer Film Classic. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2013. 119-46. Print.

Hooks, Bell. “Chapter 9: Is Paris Burning?” Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End, 1992. 145-56. Print.


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