ADAM REIGN & ETIENNE TRUCHOT
Within the first jagged frame of Adam Reign and Etienne Truchot’s documentary film We Are Legend—the celluloid celebration begins: a cacophony of bombast and kinetic energy confront you in blurs of black and white and sharp penetrating focus alike. The once underground world of voguing is laid out before you: its characters, its heroes, its mavens, its ball queens who fill the room and loom larger than the entire history of Mardi Gras and the circus combined.
Not since Jennie Livingston or David LaChapelle have we seen such a transformative film. What is the active ingredient? The documentarian acting not as journalist, but as admirer.
“The transgender community is one with a great history—one we wanted to celebrate,” cinematographer Adam Reign, a former breakdancer and b-boy told Imagista.
“Voguing,” Etienne Truchot, the film’s producer and codirector, added, “is the cultural ‘brilliant point’ of transgender culture that no longer only exists in the basements of New York’s West Side or along its piers. This is now a global phenomenon, a lucrative American export. These are girls who are travelling to Russia, Europe, and China teaching cultures around the world how to express their transgender fabulousness through dance—voguing—and attitude.”
No, this is not a film, this is a history lesson, a flashpoint captured on film, and a rare harnessing of that once elusive transgender zeitgeist.
What inspired you to shoot this particular story? And how did you come across the subjects?
Etienne: The story was on my radar since I had seen the documentary Paris is Burning. Around April 2012 we decided to pitch a short segment story for CANAL+ to be included in one of their programs. After getting the greenlight we started shooting a few days later. After we finished the segment for Canal+ we felt that we had just touched the surface, so we wanted to explore who these people where on a deeper level.
Adam: As a former professional b-boy & breakdancer, I immediately recognized and related to the dance aspect: raw creative energy born of the ghetto! B-boys and voguers share many things in common; both form “crews” or “houses”; both were born in the 1980’s in neighborhood’s very close to each other (South Bronx & Harlem); both use dance, fashion and music as tools to express; both battle it out on the dance floor for crew/house respect; both take huge amounts of time and dedication to get good!
Did you have any dialogue with the performers? And if so can you share with us some of their story regarding how they got into this type of performance?
Adam: Ballroom culture is a big part of black and latino LGBT culture. It’s one of the only venues where gays and drags can openly be themselves and not fear being ostracized. Most of them come from a very difficult background. They are usually cut off from their family, some of them get into prostitution. The ballroom scene becomes their family, where they find acceptance, emotional support and freedom of expression.
What is it that you wish to express or draw attention to with this story?
Etienne: You don’t come across such a vibrant subculture often, especially a scene that is still out of the mainstream, even after more than fifty years of being around. We felt privileged to be welcomed at those balls and wanted to show how they had evolved since Paris is Burning. Now balls are very different from back in the 80s, the competition categories have evolved the dance, the style. They are a reflection of today’s society.
Adam: Any rose that grows from concrete is a rose worth noticing. Humans are a very special bunch. Throughout history people from oppressed backgrounds have always found ways to gather and express themselves, to heal themselves. The ballroom scene is one of the most vibrantly alive cultures I have had the pleasure of exploring with my lens.
Are there any unique or interesting technical details you wish to share?
Adam: I intentionally wanted to shoot both the still and motion images in black-and-white. I feel the lack of color transmits visceral emotional energy, better then color images. Colors carry their own preconceived emotional connection; black-and-white clarifies my view while in a room so full of color. My goal is to see the person and feel what they are experiencing when they dance/perform. Black-and-white also serves as a portal from the viewers normal (colored) world to that of a subculture that lives in the shadows of the mainstream.
Interesting facts or events related to this story?
Adam: It’s interesting to see that voguing and the scene in general is bigger now than ever. With tools like YouTube, it has really spread all around the US, and even internationally. You have now have voguers in Japan, France and Germany. But it all started here in New York. There is also a whole musical subgenre attached to this scene, with artists like DJ Mike Q, to whom we are grateful for sharing his great music and remixes for the soundtrack!
What was the overall atmosphere of the club like where you shot?
Adam: First of all it’s a very late night kind of thing, people start arriving after 2am, it reaches a climax around 6-7am, and finishes late in the morning. It’s definitely a long night. Then you have the highly competitive spirit that leads everybody to express their support loudly for one house or the other. They sing the names of the different houses on the beat. It’s very uplifting. And you also have a lot of drama going on … queens fighting the judges. It’s the most entertaining nightlife event we have ever experienced.
How receptive where the performers to being filmed?
Adam: Being the only white guys there (literally), at first we had to gain their trust. A lot of people in that scene feel the mainstream come to them for inspiration and then don’t give them the credit – like Madonna and her vogue days. We explained to them that their story was what interested us, and that we would represent them honestly on camera. Then it was all good.
Is this part of a longer story or do you feel you’ve captured what you set out to capture?
Etienne: We definitely have plans to continue working with this community for many years to come.