Focusing on the ballroom scene in Berlin, Barcelona-based director and photographer Leo Adef's film SAFE portrays queer BPOC as seen through their own eyes, dancing and discussing gender, dance, beauty and identity. Ballroom culture originated in New York City in the early 20th century as a countercultural phenomenon where predominantly Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ attendees would dance, vogue, walk and pose in drag performances. After Jennie Livingston's documentary Paris is Burning introduced New York City drag ball culture to the mainstream in 1990, ballroom has become a fully global movement.
Below, Adef talks about the ballroom community in Berlin, ignoring heteronormative judgement and the political act of self-love. Two personalities from the film, Christopher Saint-Laurent and David Milan also chime in on dance as a spiritual experience and the importance of safe spaces for gay POCs.
Violet Conroy: What first drew you to the ballroom scene in Berlin?
Leo Adef: I went to Berlin to collaborate on a campaign with a brand and in that project, I met these performers. They opened up to me rather quickly and shared their stories and experiences, which moved me. Since I started creating films, I always choose to portray stories that are not represented much in mainstream culture. As a queer person I learned a lot from my own community in Barcelona and when I met this community in Berlin, I knew that I wanted to create something like this with them.
VC: Could you explain the title of the film, SAFE?
LA: ‘Safe’ refers to a safe place. That is a very important concept for marginalised communities. The system in which we are submerged rejects everything that is outside the norm, so we need those spaces to be ourselves, to find more people like us, to share experiences, to organise against oppression to not be afraid of being judged by the heteronormative world. During the shooting of the documentary, the concept of ‘safe spaces’ was one of the most mentioned ideas. That’s why I chose that title, because this community is creating a space where they could feel safe in a way that they cannot feel outside of it.
VC: SAFE promotes a strong sense of self-love. Why do you think this is important?
LA: In a society that teaches us to hate everything that is different, self-love is a political answer to the problem. I learnt from the community how important it is to know yourself, to experiment and to question everything that you were taught, in order to accept yourself the way you are. I know that it’s not as easy at its sounds, but it’s a constant exercise that we have to do to change the perception of ourselves and of others.
VC: Could you tell me about some of the personalities featured in the film?
LA: Seva Quinn is a non-binary performer and a member of the House of Prodigy. I connected a lot with them from the beginning and I was very interested on their point of view of Ballroom as a non-binary person. 30 years ago when Paris Is Burning was shot, the context was very different and I learned from Seva how important it is to keep questioning everything. They fight for trans, queer, fem, gender-nonconforming, non-binary, Indigenous, Black, Brown and Immigrant joy.
David Milan is the German father of the iconic House of Milan. I was amazed by the way he dances and the commitment that he has for the community. He is fighting for a better future with more diversity and respect.
Gifty Gorgeous Gucci is a black dancer born and raised in Germany. She lives to share love and happiness. I’m totally in love with her. I will always hold a special place in my heart for all of the intimate moments we had during our time together. I’m very thankful to her for the way that she opened up to me. She gives a very strong and important message about self-love and the importance of the community in the film.
Christopher Saint-Laurent says that he expresses himself through art and culture and tries not to be defined by labels. He got into ballroom during his studies in Birmingham, while watching Paris Is Burning. It was very interesting to talk to him and see him performing. He taught me about healing; it means letting go, it means equanimity, it means fighting hate with love. He thinks self-healing must occur before collective healing can happen.
Shayne Angels is part of the Kiki scene, a smaller scene inside ballroom created by the younger generation. I had a lot of fun with him. The freedom and happiness that he projects while he is performing is contagious.
VC: Do you think of dance as an effective form of therapy?
Christopher Saint-Laurent: For a lot of cultures, for a lot of people, dance is a therapy. Dance allows you to express or explore parts of your identity and communicate. When I’m dancing I feel like a superstar, I feel empowered, beautiful, paradoxically I also feel extremely vulnerable, but overall I feel connected to a higher level of consciousness. Ballroom is a space that is safe, where we can communicate. So I guess ballroom is a kind of a church, or a spiritual experience.
Why is it significant for queer people of color to have safe spaces such as ballrooms?
David Milan: Because as a gay POC you don’t find safe places everywhere. Trans people can say openly that they are trans for example, and everyone will celebrate you for who you are. It's important to keep ballroom alive because you learn how to be self-confident and how to survive outside of ballroom.
Christopher Saint-Laurent: We could say ballroom is a refuge or church by the Black Latinx queer community to express, connect and be empowered. I love ballroom because it's a space where I can be whoever I want to be. It’s a space where my sexuality and skin colour are celebrated and not discriminated against.
VC: You’ve worked with queer legends like Mykki Blanco and Arca. What were those experiences like?
LA: It feels really great when someone that you admire trusts you to work with them. Working with both of them was incredible for me and I hope that new projects like those come again. It's been more than eight years now that I’ve been working on my personal projects as a director and it's not easy to survive in this industry and be true to your ideas, so working with artists like Mykki Blanco and Arca or being able to do this documentary is something that makes me feel proud and excited about what’s coming next.