Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Swagger

Swagger is a title you earn - and if Olivier Babinet's documentary, about children in an underprivileged cité just outside Paris, amply deserves its name, it's less for the attitude on display amongst the kids themselves, and more for the reckless, thrilling, way over-board filmmaking that Babinet chucks at his otherwise minor project. This is a film that cocks about town, strutting, preening, feeling itself. It's a film to make you chuckle with its chutzpah, its brazenness. There's a great deal of sensitivity and delicacy here too, but it's vastly outdanced by the fun-size wallop of Babinet's aesthetic - and there is something beguiling, unerringly touching, at the idea of bringing such big means to a small documentary about the dreams, hopes, loves and sadness of disadvantaged children. 

Babinet worked with the children on a filmmaking workshop for a year, as part of a project to teach them about cinema. He also interviewed them - and the film is composed of one-on-one interviews with the youngsters, interspersed with weird, dreamlike, fantasy sequences. After a strange opening at nighttime, where the camera flits among the tops of the high-rises, filming the zone like a sci-fi land at rest, we meet the gang as they introduce themselves to camera: Mariyama, Elvis, Paul, Naila, Regis, and a whole load more. The tone is set: odd, buzzing, fantastical visuals; a pulsating imagination - and then tender, naturalistic, artlessly seized candour. For the rest of the film, Babinet will use his subject's startling, strange, enchanting confessions, to create luridly conceived set-pieces that metastasize the ideas of the powerless and unlistened-to into bold, entrancing visions. 

Even when Babinet's camera is at rest, he manages to throw some pop at the screen - Naila is filmed in a backdrop of candy Technicolour in a stairwell, as she empties her funny mind out to camera, disserting on Mickey Mouse and how frightening he is; on white people; and on her dream of becoming an architect so as to stop babies from falling to their death in inner-city high-rises. Paul, dapper and shy in a sharp black suit, is filmed against a lush dark blue; Régis sits in a deserted locker-room. Everywhere you see Babinet's music video-maker's touch, in the slightly too glossy, but still inviting plasticity of these interviews. 

Babinet then devises riotous sequences in between these talking head segments, ranging from a disquieting surge of drones hovering over the projects like a dystopian nightmare, to a sort of jailbreak scene when two kids ring a fire alarm bell in a corridor and escape through a hole in a wire fence into a Pasolini-like field of long brushy grass where a camel is tethered to the ground. The viewer rushes with the boys in a flurry, the hand-held camera keeping the beat as they leap and skedaddle out of the building, before the camera rises in a swoonsome movement once they've made it through the fence, to encompass the whole surrounding environment, signalling a burst of delicious freedom. Or Babinet gifts Paul a Jacques Demy-like dance sequence where he skitters through a disused marketplace and out along the abandoned concrete walkways of his hometown, freed from some of the cares he has shared to camera, the fear of rejection, the shame of his father's mental illness. As Céline Sciamma did in Girlhood, Babinet grants his subjects the chance to be seen the way they wish to be seen. 

These are children who have never met a white person; these children of immigrants talk of 'French-born' people as of another species, so fully ghettoised are they in their suburb. They talk calmly of dealing being a job that you can do. They tell of a schoolmate who was shot. Many of them have never been to Paris. All of them long for great wealth; some dream of being President. The great power of Swagger is that it extracts these wholly astounding nuggets without ever dwelling on their potency or underlining the tragedy of these lives. On the contrary, Babinet loves and celebrates these people, gives them time and care, frames them well, and lifts them. 

Speaking of which: no article on Swagger can do justice to the film which does not spend some time on the film's clear star turn (and someone who, in my view, is one of the great LGBTQ onscreen characters of all time): the great, delightful, scenery-chewing, perfectly named Régis Marvin Merveille N'Kissi Moggzi. Obviously afforded extra screentime in light of his charisma, Régis burns up the screen as he talks about his love for his mum, with whom he talks about make-up and fashion; or about his love of the soap opera The Young and the Restless; or about the dreadful fashions sported by his classmates; or the time someone stepped to him and he fought them and won. Régis, a fat, black, funny, stylish, screamingly camp, seemingly perfectly happy, balanced and accepted teenager from an underprivileged background in a social housing development in France in 2016, is nothing less than the most positive and galvanising depiction of an LGBTQ person I can think of in recent times. From the moment we first see him, sewing at his table at night, to the scene when he struts through school wearing a fur coat in one of Babinet's punchy imaginary sequences, via a scene where he adjusts his bow-tie in a mirror before the camera pans out of his window to film the building from a great height, ten floors above ground, Régis is a star - but more than a star, he anchors the film, gives it further pizzazz. He is the only teen mentioned by any of the other kids, and when he's named it's by a straight boy, who cites him as an inspiration. 

Régis has swagger in spades; Paul has some of it too; Naila has also. Swagger, don't forget, is attitude to wear like a new shiny coat over torn or dirtied rags; swagger represents the act of papering over inadequacies, of shining a light to detract from fears or misgivings. The swagger of the children in Swagger - and the swagger of Swagger - is there in the act of taking some of our time to ask us to believe in the dream. 

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