An imaginative and exhilarating documentary on a group of teenagers in Aulnay-sous-bois, a council estate on the outskirts of Paris. The film is made up of interviews, recreations, and imagery usually found in slick sci-fi pictures (drones invading la cite, an owl descending for its kill). It looks very beautiful but more importantly, the film’s subjects and what we learn about them feel true, rounded, lovely.
These teenagers are first generation immigrants from various former French colonies. Some dream of the village they left behind, others hope never to return to it; none feel French, or rather they do, but second-class French, not like the ‘real’ French, the French de souche, who they imagine as being blonde and blue-eyed. They rarely see them because though they used to live in this council estate, they moved out once the blacks and arabs moved in.
Unlike most films of this type, this one doesn’t focus on the drugs and shootings on the estate, though that is constantly there as background but instead on the dreams and aspiration of these children: they want to be architects, stylists, successes in a world that they know doesn’t have much room for them and will try to keep them out.
All of them seem to have suffered from some trauma; some are in care, others have parents who are strangled by debt, many of them live with a single parent; those rare ones who enjoy two parents rarely see them as they work all the time; the children talk about the responsibility of illiterate parents who rely on them even to fill out the simplest forms. The voices of some of them seem silenced by the memory of past traumas. Most of them have a problem with trust. They talk of all the fights. The girls are ostensibly the worst they tell us. One of them started looking like Beyoncé but during the fight all her hair got pulled out and she ended up like 50 Cent. Many of the boys talk about the temptations of getting work as a lookout for the drug dealers. You’ll wonder what once happened to these beautiful children and the lives they’ll lead subsequently.
The film’s success is that it draws them out. As the film unfolds, each child, from so many different countries, believing in so many different religions, but with a shared experience of life in a council estate where drugs and killings are a way of life, is caught in that cusp of adolescence. Still children but on their way to adulthood, capable of independent thought, very articulate, and each in their own way beautiful.
My heart particularly ached for a fat young queen who’s an avid fan of the American soap opera ‘The Young and the Restless’ and can voice every plot detail. Régis N’Kissi likes being different, makes his own clothes and dreams of being a stylist: ‘all my dreams are about fashion’. He swaggers through the school corridors wearing fur and shades. He’s well-known and well-liked he tells us, then adds modestly ‘not like Beyoncé,’ but well-liked nonetheless. Though he always wears a bow-tie, Régis’ earned the respect of his colleagues by fighting one of the tough guys in the parking lot behind the school they call the Stadium, going three rounds and winning. No one’s bothered him since.
Each child is allowed to tell his or her story and voice his or her aspirations. The drugs and the shooting are part of their shared culture but so is the school and their experience of each other. Swagger’s a film that both gladdens and brings a slight ache to the heart.