Paris is Burning is a 1990 documentary that recounts the underground drag ball scene of late 80s New York City as well as the gay and transgendered African-American and Latino communities involved in it. The film provides an essential (and still relevant) look at gay and trans life through the exploration of this specific subculture highlighted via actual ball competition footage as well as the one-one-one interviews with the leading players of the time.
With how important, critically-acclaimed, and ground-breaking this film was at the time (and still is as a cult favorite), I'm ashamed to say that I saw it for the first time only yesterday and even more embarrassed to admit being aware of its existence only a year ago. Its short 78-min running time belies the amount of cultural knowledge it provides from the specifics of drag ball culture (categories, houses, etc.) to the origins of voguing and throwing shade. At the heart of it is the film's exploration of how the ball scene enabled the disenfranchised community to find an empowering, supportive, fun, and safe outlet to deal with their very real fears and realities of homophobia, racism, poverty, and AIDS.
I didn't think too hard then about picking my favorite shot when I saw the film since I was too busy learning about a world I previously didn't know. Shot by then NYU film student Jennie Livingston, the documentary's gritty aesthetic is both a product of its time and a fitting reflection of its subject matter. The elaborate costumes and the energetic dance routines made it tempting to pick a shot from the ball competitions, especially any and all voguing routines. But most of my favorite shots were actually of the people during their intimate one-on-one interviews with the filmmaker from Dorian Corey's extended makeup scene to Pepper LaBeija smoking to Venus Xtravaganza lounging in bed. My pick for best shot is from one such scene...
In this shot, Octavia from the House of Saint Laurent is speaking about wanting to live a "normal happy life" which might mean marriage, kids, or being famous and rich. She's flanked by photos of models and celebrities she aspires to be, especially her idol Paulina Porizkova whose picture is right above her, dead center in the shot. While not representative of the documentary as a whole, it's still a lovely snapshot of someone vocalizing and visualizing their dream, regardless of how out-of-reach it may be, which Paris is Burning wholeheartedly encourages for all.