The Swenkas

The Swenkas

The Swenkas (Denmark, 2004, Director: Jeppe Rønde, 72 minutes): This film was really unlike any other documentary I’ve ever seen. The Swenkas are a group of about 20 Zulu men who gather each weekend to “swank”: they dress up in fancy suits and jewellery and compete before a judge to see who is the most stylish. Sort of a “Lord of the Bling” (ooh, couldn’t resist!). But it’s more than just fun for them. Swanking represents self-respect, and these men emphasize certain values such as cleanliness and sobriety. It’s as if the old adage “Clothes make the man” has come to life. Even though some may think these men are spending far too much money on their clothes, it seems to have given them the pride they need to be successful in life. Certainly no one in their families complains. Besides, sometimes they compete for large sums of money (or even, now and then, a cow.)

The reason the film stands out is the way it has been crafted. Director Rønde uses the framing device of a fictional narrator, an old Zulu vagabond who tells us a bit about the group, but also sets up the dramatic arc of the story: the leader of the Swenkas has just died, and his son is grieving and thinking about abandoning the group. This storyline gives the film the feeling of a fictional film, and at times it’s hard to believe that the whole thing isn’t carefully scripted.

The director explained afterwards that he never told the participants what to say, but that since Zulu culture is built around storytelling and the Swenkas were all used to performing, each participant had no trouble “performing” in the film. But they really were working through a difficult time in the life of their group.

The result is a beautifully shot, and even more beautifully edited film that feels more like a fable. The recurring themes are hope and the relationship between fathers and sons. The director actually told us that this film is the second in a trilogy about faith, hope and love, and I found myself really eager to see the other films. A standard documentary approach, with interviews and such, would have made an interesting film. Jeppe Rønde’s unorthodox approach has given us a transcendent one.

More information on the film here.


7 thoughts on “The Swenkas”

  1. What spoiled the film, the Swenkas, was the music; it couldn’t have been more inappropriate. The Zulu music tradition is one of the richest in the world, and what does this film use as a background? Shmaltzy violins and a piano. Perhaps the music editor has never visited Zululand, but some members of the production team – at a minimum the film crew and director – must have. So this will certainly raise questions about the professionalism and gravitas of the producer/director – although I’m sure no one on the team ever intended the film be disrespectful either to an educated audience or to the culture being portrayed.

    The sound track, as is, should be totally scrapped, and indigenous music should be mixed in with the original dialog/recording. As for trying to convey the ‘dapper’ image of the Svenkas, there’s a whole host of musical styles the producers could mine that would be appropriate. The ‘Sophiatown’ sound of the 1950’s produced many recordings in Johannesburg that paralled the Bing Cosby cooner sound of the U.S. Mahlatini, a Zulu through and through, was almost singlehandedly responsible for Mpaqhanga – the dominant music form in South Africa in the 1960’s and 70’s – which often playfully dealt with social trends. Even Kwaito, which is a noisy combination of house, hip-hop and indigenous styles must have appropriate stuff to offer.

    The director/producer should do his homework and request from black South African DJs, old-time record producers etc, music that both stylewise and lyrically would be appropriate. Perhaps the film passes the muster of an audience in Europe, but for anyone who knows anything about Zulu culture, this film jars no less than would a South African film about modern Vikings that had an Arabic sound track.

  2. I can understand your perspective, Dovis. Someone at the screening actually made a similar comment to the director. His answer made sense to me, though. The men actually do their “swenking” with NO musical accompaniment. The director added the “jazzy” music simply to call to mind the sort of era of the “sharp dressed man” that most of the audience members would relate to. So yes, perhaps he is only trying to “pass muster” with a European audience. Frankly, using Zulu music wouldn’t have been appropriate, in my opinion, unless it was perhaps something from Sophiatown in the 50s, as you mentioned.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. I have seen the film twice on television and I wish someone would start to make it a tradition to follow, with the young people of Europe. No matter what music. Just the scence of belonging, and being proud of who you are, that is so sadly missed with many people today. There should be more Swenkas in this world.

  4. I simply enjoyed the film. As an black American man, these men validate the pride of many black men who express respect, self love, dignity and swank externally from the internal source. Simply another creative dimension of the spirit and hope of black people arising out of their earthly condition. Swanking should become international.

  5. just saw the film last night. i really enjoyed it. i won’t be surprised if swanking becomes the new “voguing.” can madonna be far behind?

    the director made a strong choice about the music, which worked for me. that said, other (local) music might well have worked, too. different strokes.

    an inspirational film, definitely worth checking out.

  6. Hey I come from the lower working class myself, and I can relate to the aspirations of the Swenkas.
    When I dress up on a Saturday night in my best clothes, I feel proud and full of hope ….. a world away from the dirty and dangerous work I must do during the week.

Comments are closed.