Thursday, October 11, 2007

"How Do I Look"
Directed by Wolfgang Busch

A&U Magazine
December 2006

Have a Ball!
Wolfgang Busch, Director and Producer of
How Do I Look, Showcases the
Ball Community and its HIV Outreach

by Alina Oswald

From Madonna's "Vogue" video to films like Paris is Burning, the Harlem ballroom community has always been a playground where young, talented gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people can build their self-esteem by competing in categories like fashion or dance as an art form. The "illusion of a runway" that ball events provide for performing members don't only allow them to live out their fantasies, but also to freely express themselves artistically. Organized in "houses" with an (usually) elected "mother" and "father," the ballroom (or ball) community looks after its members and nurtures their talents.

"Some houses are like gangs," artistic activist Wolfgang Busch explains during our phone interview about his new film on the New York City ball community, "in the bad sense." Paris is Burning, a film about the house with the same name, has been criticized as exploiting these negative aspects of the ball community. That's why, in his new documentary, German-American filmmaker Wolfgang Busch offers a fresh image of the ball community, concentrating on houses that make a positive difference in the lives of their members. How Do I Look, which took ten years to produce filming and interviewing community members at various ball events, focuses on educating the upcoming "ball" generation in the positive assets of houses dedicated to helping their members to get an education and a job. These houses also organize balls specifically dealing with HIV/AIDS prevention, education, and outreach. How Do I Look also focuses on members of the ball community who, while socially marginalized by racism, perform in the balls for fashion and artistic awards, thus creating their own arenas of standards and success. Many of them, like Tracy Africa, Willi Ninja, or Jose Xtravaganza took their runway walks to a professional level.

"What I respect so much about the ball community is its inclusiveness," he says, commenting on what he considers its most important quality. "No matter if you work on Fourteenth Street or as a fashion designer or [if you are a] celebrity, everybody can walk a ball: People of all shapes and forms have a place to compete."

Busch takes the knowledge that the ball community is all about fashion and glamour and how its members look a step further in his documentary, using How Do I Look to show how ball community members look on the inside, because it's obvious that they look "fabulous" on the outside.

Looks are important for one's self-esteem, especially for male-to-female transsexuals who transition and sometimes do not look as "feminine" as they would like. For them it's important to get accepted in real life, in their community. So, being part of various ball events and competing for various awards pull them through the hard times.

Wolfgang Busch's first contact with the ball community was an actual ball at a club called Tracks, in 1987. Yet it wasn't until 1989 through a fundraiser for the Gay Games in Vancouver, when he met assistant director and lifetime achiever in the ball community, Kevin Omni.

As a cultural gay activist, Busch has dedicated his life to empower LGBT artists. He plans a meeting with Al Sharpton and Russell Simmons, both very outspoken in the arts and its role in the political arena because the artistic community is "the most powerful community on the planet," because the "stars," when they unite, can determine major changes in most aspects of our life.

When it comes to HIV/AIDS, the ball community was maybe the most hit by the pandemic. In 1998 the ball community lost Fila Omni to AIDS. Since 2001, the ball community has also lost Gerald Dupree Labeija, Kenny Ebody, Eriq Christian Bazaar, and Marcel Christian to AIDS, and Pepper Labeija to diabetes.

"I think [that's] a scary statistic. That's a really alarming number," Wolfgang Busch comments. That's the reason why he's focusing on houses and balls that make HIV/AIDS prevention, education and awareness their priority.

For more information about How Do I Look or to contact director Wolfgang Busch, log on to