Danish filmmaker Jeppe Rønde opens his documentary The Swenkas with an almost comically theatrical flourish, as an old man, in the hushed, intense tones of a traditional storyteller, introduces "the Swenkas," a group of natty South African men, resplendent in designer suits and carefully chosen matching accessories. Sauntering slowly toward the camera, they look like a batch of models casually escaping from a GQ fashion shoot, and the narrator's fervent respect only heightens their lustrous unreality. In Johannesburg, "swanking"dressing for success and competing with other men in informal fashion showsis a respectable sport that, according to Rønde, connotes a surprising number of thingssobriety, piety, cleanliness, and devotion to family chief among them. The Swenkas migrate from the countryside, where their families live, to the city, where they take on blue-collar jobs for the season, then return home with the money. During the week, they get grimy, but on Saturdays, they assemble to show off their style, strutting and competing for prizes ranging from money to livestock. Rønde records it all, but sews his film together around one man who isn't sure whether he wants to follow in his father's swanking footsteps.
That storyline is part of an ambitious aesthetic in which Rønde seeks to mimic traditional African storytelling styles and get away from standard doc language. Following one young man who's contemplating leaving the subculture, he builds an affirming family fable that feels more like a narrative film than a documentary. But it also feels calculated and forced, and it leaves a lot of informational gaps, particularly where South African culture and history are concerned. Rønde's sleepy pacing, quasi-naturalistic dialogue, and copious shots of incidental details make The Swenkas feel like a documentary, but his subjects' tendency to overexplain their lives or not explain them at all feels like real life, and Rønde does little to balance the discrepancy between the real world and his more artificial narrated-and-prepackaged version. The Swenkas is at its best when he simply stands back and watches the fascinating swanking process, as men pose and preen for the latest judge, pulling up their pants cuffs to show off their patterned socks and waving their hands across their suit jackets to call attention to their matching handkerchiefs and jewelry. Like Sabelo's too-pat story, it all feels formal and unreal, the product of high ritual. But it also feels like one of the few rituals they're playing out entirely for themselves rather than for the sake of Rønde's neatly packaged modern fairy tale.