Music video director Olivier Babinet borrows a deliberate style over substance ethos from his preferred medium and brings it to its most unlikely onscreen home: the documentary feature. With Swagger, Babinet profiles the lives & personalities of eleven school age immigrants living in French housing projects, some first generation and some second. He offers their musings on topics as wide ranging as love, death, pop culture, poverty, and the surveillance state as mostly raw information, free of context, only stepping in to add music video style visuals as onscreen flavor. Swagger is like a Rodney Ascher film in this way, broadcasting instead of editorializing, except that it focuses on humanizing disadvantaged communities living under the radar in France instead of exploring more trivial topics like The Shining and sleep paralysis. It’s an approach that’s sure to be as divisive here as it is in Ascher’s features, The Nightmare & Room 237, but if you’re onboard with the formula it feels like a new, exciting kind of postmodern filmmaking.
One of the more alienating aspects of Swagger is its lack of a narrative structure. The eleven children interviewed speak in meandering, conversational tangents with no real story to tell other than who they are and how they see the world. Some of these tangents include insightful information about their daily lives in the insular housing projects communities: how lookouts inform drug dealers of encroaching police scrutiny, how outlandish fashion affords them a sense of self identity, how they’ve never seen a “person of French stock” in their entire lives – living entirely among “blacks & Arabs.” Some tangents are much less informational, including musings on the Obamas, the Fast & Furious franchise, and a lengthy recital of seasons’ worth of American soap opera plotlines. When considered as a whole, the interviews offer a detailed portrait of what a school age immigrant looks & sounds like in modern France. That may not immediately seem like the kind of political documentary filmmaking that challenges cultural hegemony, but the way it humanizes and gives voice to a section of the population that’s usually ignored or vilified without a second’s thought is nothing short of radical.
Speaking of things that are rad, the most striking aspect of Swagger is the way it frames these kids’ musings in a music video context. They strut their fashion in slow motion as if the doc were an update of the historical piece Fresh Dressed. Drone shots of the housing projects and the nearby suburbs look too good to be real, with one especially smooth transition from the exterior to the interior of one of the kids’ bedrooms looking like MCU-level CGI. Nature footage of owls and bunnies contrast with an industrial dance sequence involving welding masks & The Robot choreography. In an opening Facebook post of a fashion-conscious selfie, one of the kids describes themselves as “too stylish for your eyes.” Babinet’s visual style lives up to that promise, framing Swagger more like a narrative feature than a digital age documentary (because of its subject matter it feels like Girlhood in particular). He often allows this imagery to overpower the interviews that populate the audio. In one particular sequence, he even turns the film into a glimpse of a sci-fi dystopian future, solely because the kids’musings took him there. Some audiences are going to be turned off by those choices early & often, but as someone who values a style over substance ethos in almost all cases, I find it to be a bold, satisfying vision.
The lack of a narrative structure at the center of Swagger is only amplified by the way Babinet refuses to rigidly segment his interviews, allowing the reaction shots of one kid to seep in to inform the dialogue of another. I think he finds an interesting common ground between his subjects in this way and Swagger ultimately does offer a modern immigration portrait, even if flashy & loosely told. Its main goal is not necessarily to inform. It’s likely no surprise to most people that these kids help their parents translate & navigate their official correspondence or that their large housing buildings are eyesores that lead to massive white flight (along with other factors like, I dunno, racism & xenophobia). If Swagger were more interested in that kind of informational diatribe it would likely have included talking heads interviews with adult activists, urban planners, historians, and so on. Instead, it chooses to allow the kids to speak for themselves without offering an editorial analysis on what they report. I don’t have a term to describe this documentary style yet outside Ascher-esque, since it is so new & so foreign to the way these stories are typically told, but its highly stylized, Anthropology-style reliance on oral history documentation has me excited for the future of the medium.