"What hempen home-spuns have we swaggering here, So near the cradle of the fairy queen?"
- Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream
Olivier Babinet's Swagger is an independent film shot in the banlieue of Aulnay sous Bois, about eight miles north-east of Paris. For an extended period of time, the director enters the intimate thoughts of eleven teenagers who live in the projects or HLM (Habitation à Loyer Modéré: rent-controlled housing). The camera's style is fluid; the camera transports the spectators into the sky above the projects to enter directly into some of the protagonists' bedrooms at night. Adults are visibly left out as the young men and women speak directly to the camera, or to each other, throughout the film. Swagger is interested in the kids' dreams, hopes, aspirations and concerns; their musings on contemporary French society, white people; their activities; their take on love and its meaning for them.
The children are representative of contemporary black-(blanc)-beur France, a mosaic of cultures, and ethnic groups. They clearly state that the white population has left the area some time ago after "blacks and Arabs arrived." They themselves are either immigrants or the children of immigrants.
They are also endearing and grow as we follow them over the course of the film. They introduce themselves by their first name with the exception of a young black teenage girl, who keeps stumbling over hers. The film is full of life, and energy. The director and his team achieve an extraordinary level of trust; the protagonists' individual statements are never anticipated.
A young Arab woman Naïla who wants to become an architect denounces the architects of the projects with their nightmarish buildings; she recalls the tragedy of a child who fell off a balcony in pursuit of his balloon. Régis, a charismatic young black man advocates a personal style. He is the one who embodies 'swagger.' Early on, we catch a glimpse of Régis sewing at night in his room; he loves to dress up differently in a world where all the kids dress like 'clones.' The camera eagerly follows him as he strides to school in the morning, carrying himself confidently, slow-motion camerawork capturing his star-like entrance into school.
The high school kids that constitute the cast of the film show strong support for each other; they admire and respect that Régis is different. Similarly, the young Indian Paul plays the drums in Church and gradually opens up, explaining that one day he decided to embrace rock 'n' roll. However, unlike Régis's creatively composed attires (fur jacket, bow-tie, boots), Paul always wears a sharp black suit with a crisp white shirt. He play-sings and moves down the hallway as if prompted by a personal rhythm and his happiness to reveal his passions for music and his faith.
The film is carried by music; composer Jean-Benoît Dunckel's original score animates sequences and sustains the choreographic work. Thus the respective walks of Régis and Paul, who proudly dances in what looks like a generic supermarket hallway, are imbued with energy. The cinematography of Timo Salminen, who worked on Aki Kaurismäki's films, is also remarkable.
Swagger is somewhat different from classical documentaries; the children speak openly and never to respond to an explicit interviewer. Instead, these interviews are framed and edited in such a way that the children seem to answer each other. A quasi-fictional sci-fi sequence with special effects is interspersed in the film, with drones flying low near the project towers, interacting with the children's discussions and fears of the future.
As the film progresses, some of protagonists open up and confide to the director. Aissatou, the young Franco-Senegalese girl who could not pronounce her name at the beginning of the film, and never smiled, is now more secure with herself, and starts to recall some of her childhood memories. She intimates that once in school she had become the teacher's scapegoat, and therefore stopped functioning.
Discussions of gangs and drug-dealing activities do take place, but are peripheral— they do not constitute the core of the film. The protagonists witness these activities, and some of their friends and relatives are involved, but mostly they leave them alone. The film mirrors this treatment of social realities surrounding the protagonists; the camera fleetingly records dealers on top of the church as they are looking out, or at the entrance of buildings, but does not interact with them. As such, Swagger sets itself apart from what critics have called 'banlieue films' or suburban cinema.
The most optimistic character, Régis envisions leaving Aulnay and projects himself thirty-five years forward. In a magical realist sequence, students walk across a field where a dromadary, or Arabian camel, is grazing— an image that evokes the cow lost amidst the projects in Mathieu Kassovitz's 1995 La Haine (Hate).
Swagger's titular term has connotations in both the urban lexicon and Shakespearian plays, but here 'swagger' exists in the walk and the confidence the youths have mastered over the space and time of the film, trusting the film crew enough to talk and open up, and to walk freely and proudly in the limited space they have. In this way, Rabinet honors the youth and gives them a voice.
Essay by Dr. Sylvie Blum-Reid Professor of French & Film University of Florida