The Swenkas

As unexpected as it is poignant, Danish director Jeppe Ronde's marvelous documentary explores an unusual tradition among working-class South African gentlemen who primp, preen and model their best clothes for an all-male audience. On Saturday nights the Zulu men who call themselves "Swenkas" dust off their workaday selves and dress up in their finest duds...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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As unexpected as it is poignant, Danish director Jeppe Ronde's marvelous documentary explores an unusual tradition among working-class South African gentlemen who primp, preen and model their best clothes for an all-male audience. On Saturday nights the Zulu men who call themselves "Swenkas" dust off their workaday selves and dress up in their finest duds — smart suits, sparkling shirts, crisp pocket squares, natty hats and, most importantly, snazzy socks — and strut before a judge in a basement club for relatively meager cash prizes and the honor of being the best-dressed man in Johannesburg. Using the voice of a wizened old traveler to narrate the film, Ronde reinforces the traditional aspects of this magnificent display by presenting the story as if it were a folktale. A year after his father's death, 31-year-old Sabelo must decide whether to carry on in his father's footsteps as one of Johannesburg's best-known Swenkas. "Mr. Dangerous," a Swenka who was once helped by Sabelo's father, is determined to fulfill his promise to his dying friend and keep an eye on Sabelo, attempting to convince this grieving young man — who can barely afford new shoes — of the importance of finery. After the Christmas holidays, Sabelo leaves his vermin-infested dormitory and, like many Swenkas, returns home to the village where his fiancé and young son await him. There, as the other men ready themselves for yet another contest, Sabelo prepares himself for his upcoming wedding, and the moment when he'll have to decide the direction of a future without his beloved father. While it may at first seem perverse that these impoverished men should spend so much of their hard-earned money on flashy suits, it soon becomes clear that swenking is less about peacock pride than a show of cleanliness, dignity and self-worth amid the chaos and violence of postapartheid South Africa. This is a beautifully shot, wonderfully moving film, and whoever thought of setting the scenes of the Swenkas displaying their plumage to "Happy Trails" and vintage Henry Mancini tunes is a genius. Also on the bill: Virgil Widrich's acclaimed 14-minute animated short Fast Film, a delirious origami trip through film history that looks like an explosion in a film stills archive.

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  • Released: 2004
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: As unexpected as it is poignant, Danish director Jeppe Ronde's marvelous documentary explores an unusual tradition among working-class South African gentlemen who primp, preen and model their best clothes for an all-male audience. On Saturday nights the Zu… (more)
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