The ritual is thought to have developed at some point during the late 1950s when migrant workers would return home for Christmas holidays and show their families that they had reached a measure of success in the city. But the film doesn’t say anything about the origins of swanking. Jeppe Rønde’s Swenkas appear as if they just emerged from a very unusual type of fairy tale.
In real life, the Swenkas are poor workers who replace their overalls with designer suits, competing in fashion shows held in basements, just to feel a temporary boost from being nobody to somebody. Their story is essentially one of hybrid identities. Rønde’s The Swenkas is a human story about a young man going through a liminal phase and searching for a father-figure before becoming one himself. The film follows his struggles to get on with his life and how he decides to join the group of Swenkas, whose chief is actually his father.
What holds the story together in a both moving and entertaining way is the filmmaker’s decision to structure it as a bubble, i.e. a round piece of storytelling unhampered by concerns about the unmediated purity of the document. Drawing on the performatory aspects of the swanking practices and of traditional Zulu storytelling, Rønde employs a very effective narrative device, namely a fictional storyteller who introduces the story, interacts with the subjects and formulates the morale.
The Swenkas makes a great viewing experience. At the same time, it is precisely the film’s style that invites further thinking about documentary film in a broader perspective. The Swenkas does not victimize its subjects, it ‘melodramatizes’ them. Thematically, The Swenkas resonates with the (US) tradition of the male (fictional) melodrama: it is a film about the search for a father-figure, about a male ritual and a male coming-of-age due to male support. Stylistically, the film involves emotional excess, high investment in the ‘mise en scène’ and, not least, emphasis on the musical score: in this case, music from the 1930s and 1940s, which by the way, was also the heyday of male melodrama. From that perspective, The Swenkas seems like a good opportunity to re-think documentary’s resources for hybridization. There may also be some questions about the limits of fusion (e.g. Zulu storytelling + US ‘melodramatics’), but in a film visibly aiming at a pan-human argument, such questions are just not mine.