THE SWALLOWS OF KABUL

★★★★

UNFLINCHING AND GORGEOUSLY ANIMATED

MY FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Jake Watt
20th February 2020

In Western countries, animation is usually associated with child-friendly films spawned by the likes of Disney and Pixar. From 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' to 'The Queen's Corgi', the capability of animation to portray imaginative worlds in imaginative ways has enriched childhoods for several generations.

But cartoons aren't always cuddly. Beneath every kind of aesthetic surface exists a darkly-drawn underbelly, and animated film is no exception.

'Grave of the Fireflies', 'Waltz with Bashir', 'The Girl Without Hands', 'The Breadwinner', 'Funan' - these films convey an astonishing distance between image and content, muddling the bright connotations of animation and providing a disturbing but thought-provoking alternative. Using animation to tell tales that would be overwhelmingly bleak in a live-action format, the lessons and themes expressed may not be sparkly and hopeful, and the endings may be more bitter than sweet, but they remain grounded stories featuring the hardships and struggles that many face on a daily basis. While they aren't afraid to point out the negative, these films do so with spectacular writing, outstanding animation, and extraordinary characters. They may leave you bummed out, but you won't be disappointed.

WATCH: 'THE SWALLOWS OF KABUL'

In Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, in the late 1990s, the reign of the Taliban means that locals live in terror under the iron rule of the Sharia and its armed zealots. The university is destroyed, music is forbidden, stonings take place in the middle of the street, and public executions in the national stadium are precursors to football matches: fear has seized the consciousness and everyday lives of the citizens. It is at the heart of this very dark period that Algerian author Yasmina Khadra wrote her best-selling novel 'The Swallows of Kabul', which has been adapted by French filmmakers Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbe-Mevellec.

The story crosses the paths of two couples: former mujahideen Atiq (Simon Abkarian), who is now the guard of the local prison after having fought for years against the Soviets, and his cancer-stricken wife, Mussarat (Hiam Abbass, 'Exodus: Gods and Kings'); and unemployed school teachers Mohsen (Swann Arlaud, 'Bloody Milk', 'By the Grace of God'), who carries a profound depression, and Zunaira (Zita Hanrot), a beautiful woman longing for freedom. A myriad of secondary characters swirl around them: Quassim, the merciless chief of the vice squad; Arash, a professor who has opened a clandestine school; a former mullah dreaming of escape, etc. Eventually, a tragic accident after a fight sees Zunaira end up in Atiq's prison, turning the latter's life upside down.

'The Swallows of Kabul' looks at how people (particularly women) maintain hope and the desire to live in an overwhelmingly oppressive environment.

Every character is slightly stereotypical: with the conservative man and his devoted wife, fully committing to respecting the regulations of their society and the liberal couple held captive by the constraints of life overrun by dictators. Although cliché, it was parallel to real-world 1998 Afghanistan, where not everyone was submissive or fully committed to the Taliban. Not unlike Joe Min-ho's recent 'A Resistance', 'The Swallows of Kabul' looks at how people (particularly women) maintain hope and the desire to live in an overwhelmingly oppressive environment.

The film is animated via soft watercolours (something used sparingly in Sunao Katabuchi's 'In This Corner of the World') at 18 frames per second - shaded and light colours are used to accentuate the peacefulness within the unrest nested in the background. Via soft strokes, the content creators and painters built each visual aspect of the film, from the broken-down buildings to the baby blue sky, to the characters themselves with no hard edges. The film lessens the ferocity of the violence and allows the two directors to get the most out of a simple but perfectly articulated story, methodically weaving together all of the characters and themes (like love, integrity, human weaknesses and glimmers of hope under a dictatorial sky).

The sound design of 'The Swallows of Kabul' places particular emphasis on background noise to establish mood and setting - a town filled with violence and unrest, kept at a steady volume to indicate submissiveness and fear. Scenes such as the initial execution of a woman in the town square by stoning could have been a cruel and action-packed, however, the viewer is frozen when nothing but the sound of rocks hitting the woman and then her falling to the ground is presented.

In Afghanistan, simply drawing a human being is forbidden. This makes 'The Swallows of Kabul' an even more aesthetically and narratively beautiful example of the affecting power of humanist and feminist ideas that animation offers.

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