If you’re going to see only one South African film this year, will you go for the idiosyncratic fable doc or the glossy-schmaltzy feel-good travel ad? The authentic nature of the post-apartheid state in either case is merely background, but in Jeppe Rønde’s The Swenkas, the odd escapist subculture explored is almost by definition a reaction to political powerlessness. Apparently, for generations, rural laborers that come to Johannesburg for work have been indulging in “swenking”: spending a portion of their hard-earned wages on designer suits, silk ties, and top-of-the-line shoes and competing in public (and often semi-public) style-maven contests every weekend. Cash prizes are at stake, and over the decades these mime battles of double-breasted panache have taken on a distinctive performance quality, inciting the various Zulu men to vogue, fox-trot, solo-tango, prance, display their outfits’ materials like game show hostesses, and generally attempt to wordlessly impress upon the judges (who are they?) that a cresting degree of macho chic has been achieved.
The swenkas live otherwise ordinary hardscrabble lives, but their obsession isn’t a vice—on the contrary, it is a sign of prestige and achievement, the mantle of which is often passed down proudly from father to son. Framing his material with a fictional narrator who in turn describes the action as a whimsical frontier tale, Rønde doesn’t say a word about swenking’s ethnographic roots, but as it’s presented here, it seems like the organic, postmodern adaptation of pre-colonial ritual, a GQ version of tribal masquerade, by which masculinity and social brilliance are measured. This peculiar and sweet film—which lushly scores the silent tournaments with Henry Mancini and Tommy Dorsey—more or less leaves it at that, exploiting the poetic surreality of the overdressed Zulus in Pierre Cardin primping in the basements and barren fields of the Transvaal but resisting the urge to contextualize or explain it.
Another South Africa altogether arises in Cape of Good Hope, a self-consciously upbeat paean to the new multiculti-ism that centers on a Cape Town dog hospice (puppyish reaction shots abound) and trails after a handful of racially varied do-gooders as they sort out their clichéd romantic lives. Everyone smiles far too much. As the lead whitey with a deliciously zaftig figure and a Colgate grin, Debbie Brown is passable; only Nthati Moshesh, as a single black mother working as a housekeeper wooed by a displaced Congolese (Eriq Ebouaney), makes a dent in white-American-expatriate Mark Bamford’s toothless scenario.
Tipping the scale alongside The Swenkas is Fast Film (2003), a short by Austrian Virgil Widrich, a popular fest filmmaker entranced with the potentialities of photocopies. Set on a runaway train made up entirely of animated film images copied, torn, wrinkled, and cut and starring everyone from Cary Grant to Harrison Ford, Fast Film is easily the best action film of the year, and so fiercely witty it blanches any other meta-movie project in sight (like, say, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang).
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 1, 2005