Film Reviews

Review: ‘Swagger’

Doc highlights a mélange of genres from hip-hop to samba


Swagger
(France, 84 min.)
Dir. Olivier Babinet

Music video director Babinet’s new doc about teens living in the projects of a French banlieue zeroes in on deadly serious issues with flash and style. Babinet’s movie recalls Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix series The Get Down with its flamboyantly colourful depiction of the South Bronx at the moment when disco, R&B, and funk gave way to hip-hop. Swagger isn’t about music, but it features musical moments and highlights a mélange of genres from hip-hop to samba.

Like The Get Down, Swagger zooms into the ghetto with spectacular, kinetic shots of a project building. It looks mythic, set against a romantically nocturnal cityscape. The camera swoops through a window and into one of the teenage characters’ bedrooms, a visual move that Babinet repeats throughout his film.

Rather than showing us poor black and Arabs adolescents ensnared by a drab, alienated, violent world, he gives them the dignity of transcending and transforming their environment with their dreams, hopes, and above all their individuality. We don’t see them as victims, or sociological statistics.

Much of Swagger consists of the kids talking as if to someone off camera. They deliver their stories, perceptions, and fantasies in soliloquies backgrounded by school staircases, corridors, playgrounds, and private spaces. When one of the teens—say, Elvis Zannou—is on camera, Babinet cuts away to reaction shots of Salimata Gonle or one of the others. But these close-up reactions are in different spaces; it’s as if the teens are linked spiritually and feel each other’s vibes from a distance.

Babinet’s subjects know that they might as well be on a different planet from the cafés of Montparnasse, and they fully realise they are invisible to white French people. “I don’t know any français de souche,” says Astan Gonle. “I don’t even know what that is.” Regis N’Kissi tells the camera, “French people wouldn’t want to live here.” One of the kids talks about the history of colonialism and slavery, laughing ironically about Africans trying to fight off Europeans with spears.

The boys and girls of the banlieue understand where they are located on the socioeconomic map, living in a place plagued by gang riots eleven years ago. But the movie focuses on their individual lives in their self-contained world, highlighting their preoccupations with loneliness, relationships, sex, romance, village life versus town life—and, in the case of the fashionable Regis N’Kissi, Beyoncé’s designer outfits, the way you dress, and the right way to walk. In the film’s signature fantasy scene, Regis, stylishly coiffed and dressed to kill, sashays like a superstar with an improvised entourage through a gaggle of gawking students.

As the movie advances, we see and hear various wish fulfillment and fear fantasies. One girl dreams she won the lottery; another has a nightmare about her family getting shot to death. The somewhat punky Salimata Gonle chats about kissing and laughs at her fantasy of being Obama and dropping bombs everywhere. Shy little Aissatou Dia, who contrasts sharply with Salimata’s and Regis’s bravado, worries about her introverted nature.

Babinet’s refined compositions and lighting build an aesthetic that makes the ’hood more seductive than sinister and depressing, just as Spike Lee did in Do the Right Thing. Musical and fantasy sequences help in that regard as well. A Gene Kelly-esque musical number stars a dapper Arab kid, Paul Turgot, wielding a red umbrella, while the most radical fantasy sequence involves alien spaceships attacking the projects.

Although the talk-driven Swagger could use more action and interaction, Babinet’s movie plays as an intimate and compelling experience of the kind of neighbourhood that could become even more challenged as the Trumps, Farages, and Le Pens of the world ascend to power.

Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off- and on-line, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter while researching other Jamaica-related projects, including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island. He has written for radio, journals and TV, taught screenwriting and been a contributing editor to various magazines.

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