By Katie Chambers
In the documentary short The House of LaBeija, directed and produced by NYWIFT member Fredgy Noël, we meet the eponymous prominent ballroom family and safe haven for transgender women, queer people, and those in need of community. Over the course of 10 minutes, several members of the house dance, vogue, and celebrate their identities across a strikingly glamorous mansion that seems to be an embodiment of their safe harbor.
The film premiered at DOC NYC in their DOC NYC U showcase “All About Love,” films by university students showing love in all its many forms. Noël, who just received her MFA from Hunter College’s Integrated Media Arts program, is a Haitian-American director and screenwriter based in Manhattan. Noël’s films offer quirky, inclusive, female-driven stories that balance narrative and documentary techniques. Her work is an extension of how she sees the world in all of its nuance, complexity, and beauty. She has worked for she worked at MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, and BET, and her films have screened at Tribeca Film Festival and multiple Academy Award-qualifying festivals where she’s garnered numerous awards
Fredgy Noël spoke to us about ballroom culture, creative inspirations, and what’s next on her horizon.
Congratulations on your DOC NYC screening! What does inclusion in the festival mean to you?
The House of LaBeija is a film that tells the stories of the first ballroom House and builds off of the legacy of Crystal LaBeija. The House was founded in New York in 1968 and having the film screen at DOC NYC acknowledges the significance of the story and gives it access to a larger audience.
I’m so thankful for Hunter College’s Integrated Media Arts program for championing the film and giving it such a wonderful opportunity.
What inspired you to make this film?
I’ve loved ballroom culture all my life and wanted to tell an intimate story from the words of those in the community. While my admiration for the culture runs deep, it was important to keep the film authentic by having the members involved as writers as well as artists.
The documentary is presented entirely in the first person – no narration, simply the voiceover of each family member played over visuals of them moving, dancing, and celebrating their identities. Why did you make that creative choice?
Ownership of the narrative was a very important aspect of making this film. I wanted the members to feel safe and free enough to express their truths. By slowing down the footage of their movements, I wanted the viewer to feel as if they were in the minds of the members and connecting with them on a personal level.
The music score was composed by Kalifa. They scored it after the edit and dialogue was locked and I found the music to be very effective in giving the ethereal tone of the film.
The physical house you shot in was gorgeous. Tell us about it!
The Ballroom community has contributed to a lot of aspects of culture. I wanted to focus on fashion and envisioned filming the short in a regal mansion. The legendary ballroom icon Junior LaBeija boldly stated ,“O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E! Opulence. You own everything!” in the award-winning 1990 film Paris Is Burning. This is the definition of the spirit of The House of LaBeija. My vision for the film was to show the House of LaBeija in all its royalty.
I looked online for mansions in New York and found one on Staten Island. It was large enough for each member to have their own space for solo scenes. I used the community spaces for them to be filmed as a group. Most importantly, the house had all the elegance and accents I imagined for the film.
Has the House of LaBeija family seen the film? What has been their response?
Yes! The House saw the film when it premiered at Tribeca over the summer. We recently had a private screening hosted by LVMH and I got to hear them reflect on the film since the premiere. I don’t want to speak for them, but I think they like how it turned out.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
The film has so much to offer. I hope audiences can connect with the stories and appreciate the legacy of the House of LaBeija.
What kinds of stories are you drawn to as a filmmaker?
I love complex women and New York City.
What’s next for you?
My first feature film is in development. I hope to shoot it next year. I am in the process of adapting a short story from one of my favorite authors to screen. And I started NYU’s grad film program in the Fall where I have been working on more work.
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