Director Livingston’s colorful documentary chronicles New York City’s drag scene in the late eighties. Her cameras follow transvestites and transsexuals who take part in underground catwalk competitions, known as balls, where contestants compete in different categories and are judged on their “realness”. Interviews outside of the balls reveal the desperate longing of these African/American and Latino men who emulate fashion models and movie stars in an effort to bring glamour and fame into their lives. Unfortunately, the real world is largely unsympathetic to their cause.
A moving document to a once covert subculture, this poignant film examines the wide gulf between the dreams of these men and their reality. Fighting homophobia and often rejection from their families, the men form “houses”, like French fashion houses, creating their own tight-knit circles, vocabulary and dance styles. On release, controversy surrounded the film when it was reported that Livingston received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Although it won many awards, it was passed over for an Oscar nomination. Seen today, “Burning” is a remarkable portrait of eighties gay life, especially poignant since most of the main characters died without ever realizing their hopes or feeling accepted.