Not long after openly gay Wolfgang Busch arrived in New York City from his native Germany in the mid 80s he found himself working as a party promoter for the nightclub Limelight.
Eventually, he became aware of Harlem's house-ballroom scene, immortalized in the Jennie Livingston's 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning. According to Busch, even as Livingston's film was released and being hailed by the mainstream (and co-opted by artists like Madonna), many in the ball communitylargely composed of gay African-Americans and Latinoswere incensed at being misled about the original intention for the film. Financial issues were at the core of the complaints.
Busch, who had made music videos, agreed to make a new documentary on the subject at the behest of the community's leaders. He subsequently spent more than 15 years videotaping the balls, becoming friendly with its superstars and finally releasing his effort, entitled How Do I Look, in 2006. The goal of the film, Busch says, was and is to provide the public with a deeper look at the ball culture and its colorful inhabitants while emphasizing the prevalent issue of HIV/AIDS which still continues to decimate that community. Busch, who lectures around the world, will be in town Tuesday, June 4, for a one-night-only free screening of How Do I Look at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St., at 6 p.m. as part of the Queer Film Society and Chicago Public Library's Celebrating Diversity pride month series.
Windy City Times: What a fascinating moviethere are so many things that culturally collide in the ball culture, I think. And what a huge commitment from yourself to this project15 years!
Wolfgang Busch: I just felt it was really important to document properlywith the cooperation of the individuals involvedthe scene and the issues that are important to them. I made it clear I wanted everyone's input and I got it. The motivation was to make a historically correct film. The idea was also to maybe empower the community financially. The film hasn't made money yetbut it mightbut it might still. If the film makes money it will be divided by the community.
WCT: Was there also an interest in having you do something like a sequel to Paris Is Burning?
WB: They use the word "balance." There are elements in Paris Is Burning that are definitely correct but they felt that they were also being portrayed as a bunch of thieves, prostitutes and drug usersnot to say that these are not elements in the community but a) these elements are in every community and b) it's how you present it. It just wasn't well-presented.
WCT: So the main thrust of the film is to address these issues but also to illuminate; give us more of the ball scene as wellat least that's what I got from the film.
WB: Oh, yes.
WCT: After seeing Paris Is Burning, it is nice to see what many of these individuals were up to in the years after that movie. It's great to see Willi Ninja and Octavia and Pepper LaBejawho have all since passed.
WB: So many have passed away.
WCT: Does this all have something to do with HIV/AIDS?
WB: Yes. Pepper passed away from diabetes but everyone else from HIV related illnesses. It's really decimated the community. This group has lost their entire leadership; the entire organizing body of their community and no one knows how horribly this has affected this group.
WCT: After the film came how, it was shown in New York, obviously, and I'm assuming in other parts of the country. And you now take the film out and lecture on it as wellwhich brings you to Chicago next week.
WB: Yes. The film has been shown in Amsterdam, Berlin, Greece, Australia, Englandit went around the world. As a result of the film, I've been invited to several universities including Yale. I lecture on the issues the film addresses. After spending 15 years of making the film I've become an expert on the history of ball culture. While everyone was getting ready for their various categories, I was talking to the historians of the scene! [Laughs] That was my interest to begin with.
WCT: Was part of the initial attraction to this cultural underground scene because you yourself came to a country and felt a bit disenfranchised?
WB: That was definitely one of several attractions. When I learned about the inclusiveness within the ball community because you can go to a ball and see a category that includes prostitutes and celebrities on a panel; I mean the range of diversity of what we call classes of society, there is really no exclusiveness to be found there. I have worked with several other aspects of the gay communitysports or the arts or whateverand I've always experienced some sort of cliqueishness and that does exist within the ball community but there is still an inclusiveness that I don't see anywhere else.
To me, this is something that I personally learned about how to have a lot more tolerance and acceptance among the people I'm involved withincluding my own family. That to me is the best thing the ballroom community, on a human level, has to offer to me. They might rip each other's hearts out one minute but two weeks later there they are breaking bread together again. That human process is really somethingit took me a while to understand but it's really made an impact on me.
WCT: Do you still go to the balls?
WB: I do. I've just been invited to judge a ball again. I will always happily return to the ball scene.