2005 Melbourne International Film Festival : The Swenkas (2004)

27th July 2005

Director: Jeppe Rhode

Tagline: "I am dangerous"

Set in Johannesburg, this feature-length documentary follows the lives of ‘The Swenkas’, a group of migrant workers living the city, whose motto is “cleanliness and respect” and who get together on Saturday night in fine clothes to be “swanky” as part of a competition that has been going for over 30 years. It runs much deeper than this however, as the group is a support network, has a strict moral code and is part of a strong tradition in the city.

The story follows Mr Dangerous (Mr Zulu) and Sabelo in particular. Sabelo has just lost his father (who was also the leader of the Swenkas), his brother is in jail and he is just about to marry. Mr Zulu made a promise to Sabelo’s father to give him guidance and look after him, and it is great to watch them talking together.

Come December and the Swenkas return to their homes in the country for Christmas where the competition is played out for real (cash and cows) and Sabelo prepares for his wedding. As the story goes on, we learn much more about their lives and the importance that the Swenkas plays in them.

Although this film is a documentary, it is different to the usual style as it contains a structured narrative. While some people may think that having a structured story in a documentary goes against the rules, I thought it works very well. In particular I liked the narration at the start and end of the film by one of the elder Swenkas as it gave a lot of authority and respect to the film.

My favourite scenes where those of the Swenkas contests, as they performed so well and it is different to anything else I have scene. I would have liked to see more of them, but I understand that you really need to know the story behind it if you want to put it in the correct cultural context.

The clothes the Swenkas wear for their ‘swank’ are really great and their version of bling-bling is much better than any gangster-rapper as there is a real story behind it and it actually means something other than showing off your money. I also enjoyed when Sabelo showed his father’s old Swenka clothes and told the story behind them, such as how he won a cow with him or they were the last ones he wore.

What I really enjoyed about this documentary was that the people were left to tell their own story and things seemed to develop naturally. The only time we actually see the director is when he is called upon to judge a contest in the countryside. This is a lesson people such as Michael Moore should take note of, as the director should not be the centre of the story.

I also enjoyed the music. It was a mixture of traditional Zulu singing, old-time Swing music, piano, violin, cello and a country number just to mix things up. While the singers do not need any accompaniment, it was great to see the Swenkas do their thing with a low-key number in the background to go along with it.

It was also good how they managed to work the story that the mother was telling her family into the overall story as well as having the Swenkas working out who would be their new leader in while everything else is going on. The overall message of the movie is also beautifully presented in a touching scene between Sabelo and his son at the end of the film, as he tells him of what his grandfather did with the Swenkas and tells him the meaning of hope.

Rating: 8/10