Review: Swagger and Brasilia: Life After Design at DOXA

DOXA Documentary Film Festival runs from Thursday, May 4 to Sunday, May 14. We'll be giving you a preview taste of what this year's festival has to offer, highlighting a few of our top picks.

Film still from Swagger

Film still from Swagger

Olivier Babinet's Swagger opens with a broad shot of a city at night, cold and dark and nondescript. The city is Paris, though it could be any city. It has the same anonymous look of every town at night—the horizon a stitch of light, the darkness making it impossible to spot the difference between a gas station, home, semi, or a church—it’s all either dark, or bright. The camera then shifts, moves helicopter-like (it’s either on a drone, or is a drone) out of the dark anonymous city and into the high-resolution, candy-coloured rooms of Regi, then Elvis, then the rest of the kids. With this scene, the movie declares at the beginning: These people are small parts of a large city, but they are not statistics. They are not people to pity. They are people worth listening to.

The quick elevator pitch is that Swagger is a movie about 11 colourful personalities living in a low-income area. But it’s also, almost more than that, a story about a city inside of a city—a city called Aulnay, a suburb in Paris the kids call the “Afghanistan of France.” It’s a tough neighbourhood. The whole deal, with drugs, death, and thin kids who have difficulty saying their names and understanding themselves as part of the larger world. The exact toughness of their world is given real texture in intermittent interviews, where the students divulge about what they do have, what they don’t have, and what they want to have. Wanting, here, is important. Regis wants to be a stylist. Naila wants to defame Mickey Mouse and become an architect. Paul wants to be a surgeon. Aissatou wants to feel okay. Most of them want to stop living in Aulnay.

I don’t want to give the impression that the students are victims, or that they see themselves as unfairly punished. When the camera isn’t focused on their faces during interviews, where they give expression to their desires, their past, and their thoughts on topics as conversational as “love”, they are involved in play-acted scenes which exaggerate their stories and character—their “essence”. See, for instance, the iconic scene of would-be fashionista Regi, where he bursts through the front doors of the high school in a bleached fur coat and bow tie, dub-step playing and a small crew tracking him down the halls in loud admiration. Later, reserved Paul hopscotches down an alley market to a musical number, red-umbrella in hand. These are just two examples of the way the movie refuses to boil their entire identities down to “victims of poverty and inner-city violence”; instead opting to see them as complicated and interesting, entwined in urban mythologies like the rest of us.

Ultimately, Swagger reminds me of the old suspicion that cameras steal the soul of the captured (notice the verb, “captured”). I think they’re right—with a caveat. Cameras can swoop in and redefine the identities of their subjects. But cameras can also benefit, elevate, and animate souls, and in Swagger, that’s what they do.

 

Swagger will be screening at SFU's Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on May 10 and at The Annex on May 11. Tickets for those screenings can be found here.

 

Film still from Brasilia: Life After Design

Film still from Brasilia: Life After Design

Thirty Nine Tweets About Brasilia

1/39: On May 8, Brasilia: Life After Design will be playing in theatres as part of Vancouver’s documentary film festival DOXA. And I’ll say this up front: I don’t think you should see it.

2/39: I know how this sounds. I know that strong reactions to art—whether good, whether bad—always seem a bit suspicious.

3/39: Let alone the fact that, historically, the “harsh review” is a genre that tends to get things wrong.

4/39: See, for instance, the fact that Roger Ebert gave Jim Jarmusch’s brilliant Dead Man 1.5 stars. 

5/39: Or that James Wood took down Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (and almost every other generation-defining novel before it.)

6/39: It’s a dynamic that’s so often true, it might as well be a law. Law of Movie Reviews #1: A harsh review about a movie usually says more about the reviewer than it does the reviewed.

7/39: So: let me see if I can explain my case.
 

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8/39: Brasilia: Life After Design is a documentary about Brasilia, a city built in Brazil, in 1956, as a utopia.

9/39: The first thing to know about Brasilia is that its history is fascinating. Truly, It only exists because president Juscelino Kubitschek decided the country needed a fresh start, 

10/39: an event that could cleave the country’s history into a “before” (dictatorships, war, false-starts), and an “after” (democracy, liberation, healing).

11/39: His answer was Brasilia. A city made in the centre of the country where previously there were only unexplored plains.

12/39: His intentions were unapologetically lofty. The city—the new capital—would be more equitable, rational, beautiful and efficient than what had come before it.

13/39: It would be more dignified, grandiose and experimental.

14/39: It would leave behind the slums, the classical architecture and a colonial past.

15/39: It would be the culmination of the country’s history boiled down into a city that would help create “the new Brazilian citizen.”

16/39: But pause here for a second. 

17/39: If this idea doesn’t immediately excite you, imagine if this were to have happened in the United States.

18/39: What would a futuristic American city look like?

19/39: What would a city informed by structuralism, post-structuralism, or the avant-garde look like?

20/39: What if all of the money that goes into generating virtual or fictionalized spaces (video games, Hollywood, Disneyland) was instead put into generating real spaces.

21/39: Imagine all of the care, and, more important, the creative energy that’s put into developing the intricate spaces in, say, Ghost In The Shell, or Avatar, or Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

22/39: If you played video games when you were young, you probably remember the undeniable joy of discovering their elaborate settings.

23/39: What if our smartest creators put their efforts into making a city as interesting and immersive as the cities inside of their games/movies?

24/39: Wouldn’t you want to live there?
 

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25/39: ^ That was digressive, but I hope it gave you an idea of the project’s grandeur. 

26/39: I want to communicate just how much narrative possibility is pressurized in the idea of Brasilia. Because, 

27/39: and there’s no nice way of saying it: Brasilia: Life After Design utilizes none of this dramatic potential. 

28/39: Actually, the movie doesn’t even really seem interested in Brasilia at all.

29/39: This is where I have to admit that I learned much more about Brasilia on Wikipedia than I did from Brasilia: Life After Design
 

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30/39: So what does the movie do?

31/39: Well, the movie sketches a loose narrative around three characters.

32/39: One is a young woman competing against hundred of others for one of the few spots as a lawyer.

33/39: One is a street vendor who takes emergency advice calls at night. 

34/39: The last is a student who’s documenting the colours of the city for an art project.

35/39: These characters aren’t uninteresting. Actually, if they were covered in coherent detail, they could be quite engaging. 

36/39: The problem is that they’re mostly shot idly walking around. Rollerblading. Interacting with strangers. Or giving directions. We don’t really get to know them.

37/39: This is too bad, because the movie’s unspoken premise is that by getting to know the people of Brasilia, we can learn something essential about Brasilia itself.

38/39: By failing to do this, it fails to teach us anything at all.

39/39: This is why, in the end, I think you should learn more about Brasilia; scan the before and after pictures on Google, look up the impressive, sprawling spaces and eye-catching modernist architecture—but skip the documentary.

 

Brasilia: Life After Design will be screening at the Museum of Vancouver on May 8. Tickets for that screening can be found here. You can also catch the film at Vancity Theatre on May 14. Tickets for the repeat screening can be found here.