In the 2016 film Swagger (newly out on Mubi), by Parisian filmmaker Olivier Babinet, an undercurrent of fictionalized plotlines pulls the story through the surface of reality. As a storyteller, Babinet has developed a potent strategy to render the lives of children and teenagers—who recall events with exaggeration and fervent emotion—by building out their imaginative tales. His approach presents a novel documentary methodology, one that can truly illuminate the way we depict the world.
Swagger is the collective story of eleven youths negotiating growing up in Aulnay-sous-Bois, one of the most underserved communes in France. The neighborhood is less than nine miles from France’s Kilometre Zero, at the entrance of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, but socio-economically it is light years away. The cultural chasm dividing Aulnay-sous-Bois from Paris has created a bubble of crime and destitution for the inhabitants of Aulnay-sous-Bois, or “Aulnaysiens.”
The Aulnay-sous-Bois of today rose around a Citroën automobile factory that opened in the early 70s. The city pushed to urbanize the neighborhood to satisfy the expected need for shelter from workers and managers at the plant. Copious low-income “housing estates” were erected with the expectancy to house 24,000 people. According to the 2007 census, 29% of the population of Aulnay-sous-Bois lived in these housing estates that topographically covered 4% of the territory. The factory closed in 2014.
Today, Aulnay-sous-Bois harbors a large immigrant population. Their strained relationship with French white citizens, who the children of Swagger refer to as “French stock,” further pushes Aulnaysiens from normal citizenship and exacerbates growing racism, bigotry, and fear in the face of national instability. Notorious for its violent riots in response to police and government stigmatization of minorities in 2005, the commune more recently has reacted with protests against other horrendous cases of police brutality, such as an officer sodomizing a 21-year-old victim with a baton in order to “handcuff him more easily.”
The children of Swagger call this place home. Being shaped by their environment, they have developed a level of street smart and composure that many outside the neighborhood will never obtain. Paul David Turgot, a child who takes the role of adult by wearing a suit every day—even to school where he is berated for it—acts as the role model for his family, filling out paperwork for parents who can’t speak French and taking care of patriarchal responsibilities after his sick father borrowed money he couldn’t repay. A tiny girl with a big personality named Naila Hanafi dreams of becoming an architect because she has identified a disparity between architectural structure and practicality, stating that people of French stock wouldn’t live in a building with as many people as she does, then tells the story of a young boy falling off the seventh story of her last building. In foster care because he and his stepfather “had some conflicts,” Nazario Giordano tucks in his younger brother to distract him from police swarming the courtyard in search of drug dealers. To combat their reality, they dream, together.
The phenomenon of a “shared imagination” that strengthens individualism was coined by the contemporary social-cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai in his book Modernity at Large. To form the theory, Appadurai reworks the definition of a modern individual imagination into the contemporary collective imagination with three assumptions: imagination is for all people; imagination gives agency to those people; imagination connects people. Accordingly, imagination is a metaphysical space where individuals maintain agency through freedom fostered by the exchange of information. Agency arises when an individual realizes that she may add her own creativity to a global idea and follows through with an action. For example, the artist Ai Weiwei uses social media platforms, such as Twitter or Skype, as a vehicle to reveal issues affecting China. As an individual, he inspires masses to learn more about social justice and contemporary art. As people retweet, an exchange of information occurs, a shared story is created and unfurls with each individual contribution. The collective story becomes a shared narrative in which contributors are heard.
Babinet’s Swagger is a visual representation of Appadurai’s theory. The film exposes its subjects and their humanity through the reproduction of their innocent thoughts. Beyond just profiling his subjects, the director locates autonomy in them through fantasy. Here, we learn that fact does not equate with truth.
A dramatic example of this is a flashback to the first day of school for Regis N’Kissi, a teenager who finds refuge in style. With a voiceover of N’Kissi’s talking about nightly dreams of fashion, Babinet cuts to an idealized scene of N’Kissi in fur, catwalking down the school hallway while classmates stop, stare, snap pictures with blinding flashes, and cheer him on. Heavy bass blares, exaggerating fashion elements.
The shaggy fur coat, Babinet explains, was real, but the “lights, camera, action, were not.” However, who is to say that they were not? Babinet incorporates more than N’Kissi’s recollection into the scene. When asked about the eventful first day of school when N’Kissi strutted in his prized coat, another student seems to agree that N’Kissi blazed through the hallway like a forest fire: “He’s charismatic, and he knows how to walk.”
In this way, the film plays with the malleability of memories. Findings in a ten-year study of memory for the attack of September 11, 2001 suggest that memories rapidly morph within the first year of their happenings and remain fabricated unless otherwise corrected by an external force. It is how our brain works: We recount one story then transform it repeatedly without reason. The words that come from our mouths can’t be trusted, so the collective voice must confer and confirm. In turn, N’Kissi’s scene leaves us to wonder if this caricature of a true story is in fact more powerful, if not even more truthful, than the actual event.
Moreover, Swagger forces us to ask who owns theses memories and fantasies. Viewers may hesitate when they learn that Babinet himself is of French stock, not an Aulnaysien. By default, we can’t help but hear “othering,” “voyeurism,” and “cultural appropriation.” Today, an artist outside the race he or she portrays has to carefully consider the portrayal and have an honest reason for it. How can Babinet talk for eleven young people of color, and how can he avoid exploiting their culture?
Babinet met his subjects through a nonprofit program that connects artists with children in underserved communities surrounding Paris. After spending two years with them, he was taken by their resilience to events that would be impossible for him to reconcile: shootings, the foster system, hunger, poverty, and drug dealers. He decided to tell their story and carefully plotted the best way to do so. He says, “I knew that world had to meet them, but I wanted to make it on the kids’ terms.” From the beginning he shared scenes with them, asking for their approval and input, ensuring the film would depict them accurately. From the way he speaks about it, the process was closer to a collaboration than a portrait.
With consideration to the gravity of Swagger’s subject matter, one can make space for Babinet’s style in the competitive cinematic landscape, as he makes a conscious choice to confront pain with a warm embrace. Babinet frames his film through a pastel nebula of cotton candy pink and robin’s egg blue. As the film drifts along interviews and fictionalized scenes, it renders feelings indescribable by the mere reconstruction of real events. These are the kinds of feelings found only in a teenager’s monologue. Fusing together imagination and facts, Babinet successfully illuminates the ethos of these young Aulnaysiens, whose laughter juxtaposes police sirens, whose first loves eclipse drug dealers, whose hope surpasses fear.
Swagger is available on Mubi, a database focusing on “cult, classic, independent and award-winning films from around the world.” Swagger is currently ranked before Kill Bill and Magnolia on their Top 1000 list.
Megan Garwood’s work appears in various publications, including The Wall Street Journal and SUITED. She is the founding editor of Chalet Magazine and has held contributing editorial positions at Whitehot Magazine, On-Verge, and RIPP. Her guilty pleasures include metaethics and “The Twilight Zone” marathons.