"Welcome to the FAF SWAG vogue battles. Let me introduce you to the girls. Battle, then choose a winner to unlock their story."
So begins FAFSWAGVOGUE.COM, a ground-breaking interactive documentary that immerses viewers in Auckland's vogue culture.
For the past six years, FAF SWAG, a collective of Maori and Pacific LGBTQI+ artists, have been celebrating queer, brown bodies through vogueing – a dance form that originated in black and Latino communities in Harlem in the 1980s.
As producer Taika Waititi said: "Auckland is burning". And now, in FAFSWAGVOGUE.COM, the magic of vogueing is being brought to life in a digital space.
The project takes the form of a game; the viewer chooses one of five dancers, picks a location in Auckland, and witnesses a vogue battle between their chosen dancer and another. When asked to pick a winner, a short documentary on the dancer is unveiled.
Produced by Waititi and Carthew Neal's company Piki Films (The Breaker Upperers), with interactive digital effects by Wellington creative agency RESN, the project was two years in the making. After FAF SWAG had released a number of vogueing videos online, director Tanu Gago says Neal proposed a new way for the collective to enter into a digital space – in a way that had never quite been done before.
"Carthew had just come off the back of an interactive project that looks at government surveillance, and it was an international collaborative project that brought all these different organisations together," says Gago. "And he showed me this thing and I was like, 'This is amazing', and he said, 'This is the format for the future.'
"After that conversation, he started putting a team together, and we started speaking to RESN. They really are wizards to me," he says. "We put the ideas on the table, and at no point did they ever say, 'oh that's too crazy'. Every time they came back to us with a prototype, it just blew our minds."
Shooting the vogue battles required a re-think of the way the dancers would approach the dance. "There's a particular energy in the vogue ball scenes that can't be reproduced in a digital way," says Gago. "We had to find a balance between choreographing something that we could stage to the camera and capture but still keep it open enough for people to freestyle.
"On the ballroom floor there's not much choreography that goes on," he says. "When you're in a battle with someone, it's very in that moment and you really have to go with what your instincts are."
Through the eyes of the dancers, the documentary touches on the origins of vogueing, and the way queer Maori and Pacific artists have forged their own identity within the art. "Maori and Pacific bodies have a particular rhythm that is something that is intuitively connected to our cultural heritage," says Gago.
"It's a form of communication that we grow up in, so vogue ball culture and indigenous culture are able to meet on the floor. And this different thing gets born out of that - this different approach or this different style of movement and conversation happens."
FAFSWAGVOGUE.COM is live now.