We talk Ali in Wonderland (1975), currently on MUBI. It’s an avant-garde political documentary directed by Djouhra Abouda, and Alain Bonnamy. Its play with form is intended to punch the spectator into awareness, and thus very much part of the Deconstructionist zeitgeist of its time. We discuss the use of split screen, distortions, slow motion on beat, juxtapositions; its rendering of historical memory; the way the film connects colonialism with migration. It’s a work you’d perhaps now expect to find more readily in a gallery rather than in a cinema, like an installation, and worth seeing for many reasons, which we discuss in the podcast below.
Writing in Le Monde on the 3rd of January, Tahar Ben Jelloun described the film as:
‘Ali is a film on time and wear. The derision and melancholy of history. The directors well demonstrate the political link between colonialism and migration. It’s not a militant film. It’s something else: a look which derails the quotidian and returns to the misery and exploitation, of which migrant workers are the victims, an element of the fantastic. The real, edited and displayed, is more powerful and surprising than fiction; it is also more violent than political discourse (translation is my my own and possibly thus imperfect).
“Ali au pays des merveilles est un film sur le temps et l’usure. La dérision et la mélancolie de l’histoire. Les auteurs montrent bien le lien politique entre la colonisation et l’émigration. Ce n’est pas un film militant. C’est autre chose : un regard qui détourne le quotidien et redonne à la misère et à l’exploitation dont sont victimes les travailleurs émigrés, les dimensions du fantastique. Le réel donné et découpé est encore plus fort, plus surprenant que la fiction : il est aussi plus violent que le discours politique”
Tahar Ben Jelloun , Djouhra et Ali au pays des merveilles, Le Monde, 3 janvier 1977
In 1975, caring for her infant son and unable to spend much time away from home, Agnès Varda turned her camera on her neighbours on her street, Rue Daguerre in Paris. In Daguerréotypes – the title a pun on the photographic process for whose inventor the road is named – she both observes them at work, running their shops and providing their services, and asks them questions about their lives, discovering where they’re originally from (most are not Paris natives) and how they met their husbands and wives. It’s a gentle, relaxed form of portraiture, one that combines imagery of the practicalities of daily work with the subjects’ descriptions of dreams and histories – although the use of a travelling magician’s show is arguably a little too precious. We discuss the different ways in which we respond to their stories, José commenting on Varda’s clear affection for the subjects, Mike arguing that there’s a tragic dimension that overhangs the film, with talk of dreams and escape.
Daguerréotypes is a sensitive portrait of a local community and a time capsule of an era that is now half a century old, and worth watching.
We return to the work of Youssef Chahine, spurred on by by MUBI’s decision to screen a selection of his works, in what turns out to be marvellous copies. We focus on two of his films, Daddy Amin (1950) and The Devil of the Desert (1954), we compare the visual quality of the MUBI versions to those we saw previously, confirm our admiration for Youssef Chahine’s skills as a director, José takes a dig at the arrogance of a British film culture that assumes one can just move from writing or directing for the stage to directing a movie, and not even Richard can stop José from sighing over Omar.
I´m too distracted at the moment to write even a note on Yuzo Kawashima´s great ‘Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate’, currently on MUBI, so I merely urge those who can to see it. It´s set in a whorehouse at a time of great social change where everyone seems to be running through the corridors and up and down staircases, very bawdy and funny, with a handling of diverse characters even Altman might envy, and with a nonjudgmental look on the very questionable things people often have to do to survive. It´s a picaresque film with a typical rascal hero, Saheiji, who lives by his wits. One of the things that makes this film great is that it lacks the cynicism of the picaresque: everyone has their reasons here, understanding and usually sympathy are offered to almost every character, and the look on the situation is that of humour tinged with a bit of nostalgia. Times of change are difficult ones and everyone needs to get by as best they can. The film usually comes out third or fourth in lists of favourite films in the history of Japanese cinema and one can understand why after seeing it.
Two thoughts on watching The Host, currently on MUBI: the first is that the film is unimaginable before digital both in terms of its aesthetic and in terms of its country of origin, or more precisely put, no small national cinema could have afforded such sheen, such beautifully realised f/x on a monster movie previous to digital. Of course the Godzilla phenomenon is proof that these films were made, and often more successfully made, outside Hollywood. However, part of the charm of watching those old films is the creakyness, the way that imagination often had to compensate for lack of means. I´m sure compromises were made on what could be shown in The Host . One could see them: the way the monster is often seen only partially, how much of the eating of people and so on happens offscreen, or behind things, or inside trailers shot from outside, etc. Economies were clearly made. But economies are made in every film. And this one seems to me fully realised.
In The Host one is dazzled by skill. The look of the opening sequences in the lab, the way the light hits on chrome as we´re told that chemicals are being dumped into the river by Americans with the Korean scientist having no option but to comply. Then the scenes on the river as a person goes to commit suicide, the people chasing him, his look downwards as he detects a shape. It´s not just that we get all the information and feel the tension. Look at how expressive the shot of the two fishermen below is, the city in the background, in a fog, the vast expanse of river, the two vulerable and unware fishermen discovering something. The compositions are so clever and expressive, the colour grading just right. It looks beautiful.
But the look is only one aspect. Listen to the sound design, note how the sound disappears or is altered in relation to moments of tension. Note also the structure of of the film, how it begins in a lab with Americans, how it´s resolved on TV but with our remaining protagonists too concerned with their meal to care about the larger issues.
The story is told with great intelligence, Bong Joon-Ho focuses all of the narrative on a working-class family who live off a convenience shop by the beach. And as in Parasite, we are shown how their are families even worse off than they. Am I wrong in thinking that so much of American horror focusses on the middle class, sometimes even on scientists who instigate or try to resolve the problem? It´s nice to see working-class people at the centre, embodying and speaking a nation and a dilemma. Themes of class, gender, the environment, an inept South Korean government and oppressive US imperialism are woven in throughout the film.
Aside from being smart, the film is also witty, and on various levels, not just dialogue or situation but visually also. See the still below where the monster rampages through the park and leaps onto the river and we get the contrast between the twee ducks and dolphins and the rampaging mutant squid that´s about to devour everything.
The intelligence, the know-how, the though in relation to sounds and images, makes one realise how little we settle for in cinema. If we were more sophisticated viewers we´d appreciate that 90% of the time we´re watching the visual equivalent of Harold Robbins or virtue tracks by a provincial preacher who knows very little of the world and even less of how to express it. This film is on completely different level altogether, and with all of the coronavirus coverage on the news, more timely than ever. .
Lovely also to see Bae Doona of Sense8 fame as a champion archer in an early role.
Luis Ospina, the influential Colombian filmmaker who died very recently, was last month the subject of an mini retrospective of his work by MUBI, who showed three of his films: Agarrando pueblo/The Vampires of Poverty (1977, co-directed by Carlos Mayolo), Un tigre de papel/A Paper Tiger (2008), and his final feature documentary, Todo comenzó por el fin/It All Started at the End (2015), and we’re grateful to them for making these works available to us with subtitles. We begin by considering how such an influential filmmaker, not only in Colombia but across Latin America, remains so little known in Anglo-American film cultures. We talk about the ‘Caliwood’ group and how we’re so used to talking about structures that we forget how individuals make a difference. A group of young friends with shared interests get together and share a house, turning it into studios, an art gallery, a publishing house and a cinema. This group happens to include, amongst others, Luis Ospina, Andrés Caicedo and Carlos Mayolo. We’re shown how shared cinephilia leads to collaborative cultural production, one that’s left an imprint, proven to be very influential and now become part of the cultural history of Colombia and Latin America.
In Todo comenzó por el fin/It All Started at the End we see how the friendships and shared interests of these irreverent, druggy, countercultural dissidents bore fruit and left a legacy – which is not to say that structures are not important (they wouldn’t have been able to do so had they not been of a particular class, one with relatives who could afford to lend out empty houses). The film serves as an important reminder that individuals can make a difference and that collaboration is essential. Harold Innis’ observation in Empire and Communications that colonised people need to be fully conversant with their colonisers’ culture as well as their own is amply evident in the conjunction of the group’s programming and their own production.
All three of Ospina’s works are concerned with documentary, representation, ethics. In Un tigre de papel/A Paper Tiger, the Zelig-like mockumentary about an imaginary person, the form itself acts as a way of commenting on broad strands of cultural and political movements internationally that had an effect on the local and synthesises and evokes all of the virtues we admire: the playfulness, quirkiness, intelligence, the concern with politics and ethics but also fun, a pin-prick to pomposity. And we share admiration for the savage satire of Agarrando pueblo/The Vampires of Poverty, a statement against the exploitation of the poor, unfortunate and mentally ill on the streets of Cali, by filmmakers keen to sell their work, and the image of Colombia that goes along with it, to Europe.
José is in thrall to Ospina’s work and the culture to which it speaks, and has boundless thoughts; and although Mike asks questions of the ethics at play in Agarrando pueblo/The Vampires of Poverty, even in a film so clearly well-intentioned and with such a valid point, and comments on weaknesses he perceives in the cinematic quality of Todo comenzó por el fin/It All Started at the End, finding it less expressive artistically than simply informative of a time, place and culture, he’s glad to have spent this time exploring Ospina’s work.
This episode has been released early (keen listeners will have noticed a jump from number 196 to 200), and that’s to coincide with yesterday’s homage for Luis Ospina, hosted by the Filmoteca de Catalunya, one we hope will be but the first of many to come.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Agarrando pueblo/ The Vampires of Poverty, directed by Luis Ospina and Carlos Mayolo is a scathing satire of poverty porn, very funny, quirky, self-referential and multi-faceted. A crew of filmmakers working for German TV are tasked with filming poverty. They chase after poor people on the streets, pay children to take their clothes off and go swimming for money, pin the most vulnerable to their poverty, all the while thinking ahead to the whorehouse they hope to visit later. The film alternates between black and white and colour film to startling effect, showing the differences in information conveyed and experience incited by a simple change of stock, Throughout bystanders interrogate the filmmakers: ´why always focus on the worst. Is this the only aspect of our culture Westerners are interested in? If you´re making money off our suffering, shouldn´t we be paid? ´At the end some of the real people who were performing the aspects of their lives most desired by Western consumers have a good laugh about it all, but not before one of them wipes his ass with the filmmakers money. Essential viewing for those of you interested in poverty porn and documentary ethics. A prime exemplar of Colombia´s ´Caliwood´filmmaking group.
There are broadly two large cinephiliac discourses on cinema currently, each with a multitude of sub-divisions: a global, festival-based one, with internationally shared points of reference, largely inaccessible in the UK outside London. And the other, a more populist but also more insular one, also with many sub-divisions, which surrounds Hollywood, commercial British cinema, and the odd Indie or foreign film that gets nationwide distribution in the UK. In this very interesting podcast the discussion focusses on how MUBI might help bridge that divide.
A film about cinema itself, in all its variants; and, from the first, one is dazzled by the technique; the extraordinary compositions, the use of space, the inventiveness of the shots, the use of mirrors to bring off-screen space into the frame, the way off-screen dialogue is used as a kind of Greek chorus on the action; and then there’s Lucia Bosé as Clara Manni, the shopgirl who’s ‘discovered’ and becomes a big star. She’s dressed fifties-style, with bullet bras and a belt cinched as tight as possible to reveal what must be one of the smallest waists in the history of cinema. But it’s the beauty of her face that arrests – the ineffable sadness it evokes, the sense of mystery, the feeling she’s got longings that will never be sated; and her presence draws you in so as to share and understand those feelings without never quite knowing for sure which ones they are. The film ends on her gorgeous, sad and vanquished face attempting a smile.
The film starts with a young shop-girl, Clara Manni (Bosé), waiting outside the cinema during the preview of her first film. She’s anxious, wonders into the cinema and we see that she’s such a hit that the filmmakers want to enhance her part, make it bigger add a bit of romance and sex to it. One of them, Gianni (Andrea Checchi) falls in love with her and, before she knows it, he’s arranged a wedding her parents are delighted by, and a combination of gratitude and responsibility lead her to submit to the wishes of others. Gianni, however, is jealous, won’t let her film any more sex scenes with others, and he idealises her to an extent he sees her only in heroic and virtuous roles. In a clear nod to Rossellini and Bergman, he decides that his first picture as a director will be Joan of Arc, the role that will showcase all that he sees on her. The film is a terrible flop and comes close to bankrupting them. She takes on a role in a commercial film that succeeds and thus rescues her husband financially but seeks solace in the arms of another, Nardo (Ivan Desny). Whilst she’s ready to give up everything for him, he’s only after a fun adventure with a glamorous movie star. Her career is now back on track but she decides to learn how to act, to get serious about her art and only accept roles in film that aspire to more than just making money. The husband who formerly idealised her has just such a role to offer. But he doesn’t see her as an actress now. And neither does anyone else. The film ends as she accepts a role in an Arabian Nights movie with lots of harem scenes.
The film raises questions that cinema has incited since the beginning: cinema’s relationship to sex, realism, fantasy, noir, the business of it, the selling of it, the art of it. At the beginning of the film director Ercole (Gino Cervi) claims that sex, religion and politics are what’s needed for success. We get to see Venice during the film festival; and almost all areas of Cinecittà: it’s coffee shops, dressing rooms, the various sets, the ramparts of sets, behind backdrops, its entrance, its screening rooms. It’s a film buff’s delight.
In the biography she wrote with Begoña Aranguren, Lucia Bosé, Diva, Divina (Marid: Planeta, 2003), Bosé tells us:
‘To return to La signora senza camelie, it turned out to be a big hit. In my second film with Antonioni I could forget about the torment of the lights. He was the first director to begin shooting with ‘foto-flu’. It was a lighting system in which, at last, the whole set was lit at the same time, and this made possible that it wasn’t you that had to go blind in the darkness searching for the light. This is why Antonioni was able to make those extraordinary compositions. He lit the whole set and then the camera could move freely. The new system was very time consuming and the fuses kept blowing up frequently..But what impressive shots he made!’ (pp.58-59).
In an interview with Antonioni that accompanies The Masters of Cinema booklet to La notte, Antonioni says that ‘La signora senza camelie ….is a film that I consider to be a mistake, mainly because I started off on the wrong foot from the very beginning of the film by concentrating on a character who then turned out to be the wrong one.’ I wonder what the right one was? And I wish more filmmakers would make ‘mistakes’ of this order. La signora senza camelie is a cinephile’s dream of a movie. Antonioni’s comments only want to make me see it again.
We turn once again to curated streaming service MUBI for João Moreira Salles’ essay film, In the Intense Now, which combines archival news footage with home and amateur film to explore brief but fiery sociopolitical moments with a first-person, personal tint. It looks at four events: May 68 in France, the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, the March of the One Hundred Thousand in Brazil, all of which took place in 1968, as well as the beginnings of China’s Cultural Revolution, entirely through tourist footage shot by the director’s mother of her holiday there in 1966.
The film is deeply thought-provoking and complex. We discuss the feelings with which it left us, its contrast of cultures and movements across different countries and classes, how its search for understanding of its era is preferable to and more accessible than simple nostalgia, its disappointed examination of how business found ways to insert itself into the counter-culture in order to commodify and sell it, and the way that May 68 lives in cultural memory in a way the film claims is unjustified. A major theme of the film, as the title evokes, is the fleeting nature of some of these uprisings (particularly May 68, its primary focus), and there’s a significant contrast between the positive way this period of revolution is remembered and the contemporaneous state of mind as the movements ended. The film is more melancholy than you might expect.
We also discuss Salles’ use of direct textual analysis of the images he shows, in his narration drawing specific attention to camera movement, editing and framing. He keenly provides his own interpretation of the images and in so doing not only deepens our understanding of them, but also indirectly encourages the audience to apply the same scrutiny to the images of today. It’s a film that provides insight into and tools for evaluating images to viewers that may never have considered it important or even possible. We also discuss the movements of today that the film evokes for us, including Occupy Wall Street and the Parkland protests, and the similarities and differences between them and those of 1968.
We don’t entirely believe that it’s perfect – by which Mike means he thinks it’s too long and self-indulgent towards the end – but it’s a fascinating and rich film, deserving of your time.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
The awarding of prizes for an academic paper in a linguistics summer camp in a Polish provincial University is the setting for Zanussi’s great exploration of hierarchy, power, knowledge, justice, democracy, morality, conformism, corruption, ethics. A jaded, cynical professor, Jakub (Zbiniew Zapasiwicz) tries to enlighten and manipulate an earnest and idealistic younger colleague, Jeroslaw (Piotr Garlicki) and the verbal jousts between them are the occasion for the explorations of the issues the film dramatises. ‘Why not take things at face value’ asks the younger man? ‘Because it’s not all that simple or honest’ responds the elder.
Zanussi’s frame is always full of people or landscape – students staging sit ins, gangs swimming naked in the river, classes replete with students, dozens at dinner — in a way that makes one realise how thinned out much of contemporary cinema has become, not just visually, but thematically. Here when two characters speak in a two-shot it carries the context of the social so many people earlier helped depict. Place, and society are always the background to the protagonists’ thought and actions.
It’s no surprise that the film was read as an allegory for Poland in the last years of the Communist regime. It’s a film in which signs are often read by the characters as having other referents than its popularly acknowledged ones, but these other referents can only be divulged through avenues of power and knowledge. People are often compared to nature through animals: the cat will have its prey, and only by collaring it with bells will those poor birds and mice have a chance. But the analogy with nature has its limits. Human groups build their own value systems we’re told. But are those honest, just, democratic, ethical; and do they pave the way to knowledge and progress? At the end, Jaky thinks he’s brought out the beast in Piotr but Piotr makes clear that if he had, he’d be dead.
A film that seems particularly relevant in the light of present discussions on the role and purpose of universities. A great film.
Camouflage is currently available to view on MUBI.
A fine gangster film, novel for being an excellent debut feature from Daouda Coulibali and set in a region of Africa (Mali, Guinea, Senegal, Niger) that is a nexus for transporting cocaine from Columbia to Europe.
The film begins with a series of titles contextualising and explaining as follows:
‘In the Bambara culture, fraternal societies must train their followers to make them into valuable members of the community. In the Ntòmo society new members must pass through five levels:
The lion level teaches a man where he came from
The toad level tells him where he is going
The bird level teaches him who he is.
The guinea fowl level considers the man in the cosmos.
The final level enlightens the member on his place in society. This is the level of the dog (Wúlu).
The Wùlu of this story is Ladji (Ibrahim Koma), who works in a collective taxi. He’s the one who decides who to pick up and he’s figured out all the angles: avoid the elderly, fat and infirm: they can lose you a lot of money. He dreams of driving his own bus. But in spite of being excellent at his job, he’s passed over for the boss’ nephew, who’s got nothing going for him aside from his relations.
The film starts in 2007 in Bamako, and the corruption is shown to pervade everything and everyone, even Ladji’s sister, Aminita (played by singer Inna Modja) is turning tricks to get by. It ends in 2012. Ladji, the dog, can’t live with himself; his sister, the whore, is sunning herself by the pool in the lap of luxury. The final title card tells us:
‘In creating divisions at the heart of the army; in inciting competition between different tribes, and in constituting one of the sources of financing for terrorist organisations, cocaine trafficking largely contributed to the failures the State of Mali underwent during the course of 2012.’
A very good crime film about the rise and fall of the gangster figure; as in so much of the genre, it is as much a critique of the society its portraying as a depiction of particular characters. And that is a chief attraction for someone like myself: we not only get a film with likeable characters, excellent action and a poetic touch, but we get to find out about the cultures depicted: the tribalism, the meaning of art in these cultures, the corruption of politicians, the way white people are seen, what a rich house looks like to these people, the value of a bus. This is a gangster film in which negotiations takes place in a tent in the desert, in which the way out of a shootout is through a boy with a donkey, a place in which an intelligent, thoughtful and responsible young man has no way out but gangsterism, drugs or death and in which death is preferable to drugs; It’s where whores survive but dogs are put down (there is a slight tinge of misogyny in the film).
Olivier Rabourdin plays the French Entrepreneur who is also the drug kingpin
We try out Mubi, a curated streaming service that gives you 30 films at any one time, and only 30 days in which to watch them. Our choice is Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, a 1970s Italian satire on police corruption and the politics of power. It leads to discussions on its expressive imagery, its topsy-turvy plot, sexual kinks, peccadillos, and lifestyles, the performance of power and authority, and male jealousy and rage.
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is one of the best political films of all time, with a great opening sequence. A satire on politics filmed and played in high style. What does an establishment figure have to do to get arrested?
Winner of the Academy Award of Best Foreign Film in 1971 and with a great score by Ennio Morricone.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
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Donnelly (Brendan Gleeson) bids goodbye to his dead wife at the hospital, placing a photograph of their pet rabbit to accompany her on her way. He gets on a train with a loud-mouth kid (Rúaidhrí Conroy) who unsparing in his observations and picks a fight with fellow passengers, particularly a couple (David Wilmot, Aisling O’Sullivan) who’ve just lost their baby in a cot-death: ‘Oh here come Fred and Rosemary’ with the photo of the baby that ‘looks like the gay guy from Bronski Beat’ . It turns out that the trouble-making kid has also lost his mother the previous night. He’s the one who shot her; and so brutally ‘she had no head left on her’.
Thus a carriage encased in grief and anger, differently expressed by each, but so febrile with sadness and pain anything can ignite it into violence, which it will. Three deaths that will in turn result in at least three more deaths. All this told through McDonagh’s trademark vibrantly vulgar phrasing, jokes that erupt out of darkness, sharply unsentimental point-of-view, equal parts mean and funny, and with flashes of surreal violence, the centrepiece of which here centres on a cow inflating from too much gas. ‘Oh Jesus, what a fucking day!’ is the last line in the movie. All we know and like of McDonagh is already fully realised here in this short movie, which I highly recommend.
Part of the McDonagh retrospective currently showing on MUBI
Nominated and won the Best Live Action Short Academy Award in 2006
A road movie about cultural dislocation. Arash has been living in Paris for the last five years but is returning home to Iran to sit for his law exam. He hasn’t taken to France. ‘French people don’t have a reason to be interested in you,’ he says, ‘what I’ll miss most is the alcohol aisle in the supermarket’. All his friends are Iranians. Two of them, Ashkan and Hossein, convince Arash to go on holiday in the last two weeks before he’s due to return home, hoping he’ll stay. Maybe he’ll meet someone and fall in love…
Like with all road movies, what the characters learn on the road is something about themselves and something about the country made of up of the places they visit. What makes this film distinctive, and thus more interesting than most of this type, is that what they learn about the country they are visiting is always dialectically counterpoised to the country they originate from: thus the reference for the South of France is the North of Iran; the girls they meet on the road are shown how women in Iran wear a scarve and what the various ways of wearing the scarve signifies etc.
Through the trio’s travels in the South of France, we learn about Iran:
Arash: I don’t know about you but I’ve been doomed since childhood.
Arash: They used to call me the son of the Devil.
Arash: Whenever I heard the call to prayers or religious hymns, I would hide behind the drapes and start screaming.
We learn that the very obese Arash originally put on the weight as a deliberate ploy to avoid military service; that Hossein had to mortgage his family home in order to give the government the fee necessary to guarantee his return from Paris to do his military service. Hossein who’s since married a French woman is stuck. Imagine at 33 having to return to work for someone else for free for two years. Does he abandon his wife in France, ask her to meet up with him in two years in Iran, or forfeit the home where his family leaves in Iran. Hossein’s problem is that he misses Iran; he sleeps better there; he’s happier there; but he’s more himself in France; can only fully realise himself – come closest to the person he’d like to be — outside of the strictures of home.
The film presents a very different picture of Iranians than one is accustomed to from the media. Here we see an easy, affectionate friendship between three blokes, who talk of love, poetry, and Tarantino; and why they don’t want to go to the mullah’s version of heaven: ‘That’s why I only drink the hard stuff, I’m going to hell on a high speed train’. It’s where he’s sure his friends will be. And who wants to spend eternity with mullahs? We get to see little of French culture, the landscape, a few village parades, the odd exchange of cigarettes with the natives. Even the girls they meet and share part of the road with them seem to me to be immigrants (I don’t think the film is explicit on this but when they perform a song, they sing in Spanish; one of the other girls they talk to, a waitress, is of mixed origin – her father is Moroccan, etc.)
We do get to see a group of men—funny, open, emotionally at ease with each other — restrained still by the patriarchal, authoritarian culture of home – Arash, surely close to thirty or more – has to answer to his father on the phone like a teenager; distant, perhaps excluded, from French culture but already changed by it in a way that makes a return for most difficult, perhaps impossible. Arash, modest, funny, at ease with himself as with others is a character you’ll come to love. France would miss him if it had ever bothered to get to know him.
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.