ANNECY ANIMATION FESTIVAL: THE SWALLOWS OF KABUL
Based on the Algerian novel by Yasmina Khadra, The Swallows of Kabul is a movie by Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec that tells the story of the Afghanistan city of Kabul, during the Taliban occupation. Set in the summer of 1998, the story focuses on two married couples.
The first couple is Atiq, the prison guard and his wife Mussarat , a deeply ill woman on the verge of death which leads her helpless husband to feel like he’s lost any joy in life. The second couple is the much younger Mohsen and Zunaira. Zunaira is a very free-spirited woman and ex-teacher who harbors strong hate toward the current system, and who can blame her? It’s impossible for her to listen to music in her own house or go anywhere without wearing a burka and having male guidance. She feels dehumanized and stripped of her rights at every step of her life. Mohsen, on the other hand, is presented as a bit spineless. While he’s far from happy about the political situation, he does his best to not anger the occupiers and has second thoughts about taking part in a secret school teaching children their real history and even going as far as taking a reluctant part in the stoning of a woman during a public execution.
One day when the young couple is seen making out in public, the municipal police scolds them. Mohsen is scared and retreats to the mosque to pray leaving Zunaira alone with the guards and she spends a few hours sweating in fear. Back at home and deeply upset, Zunaira refuses to take off her burka and speak. The couple begins arguing which ends with Mohsen accidentally falling and fatally breaking his neck. Accused of murder, Zunaria gets arrested and is set to be executed in a few days without any trial. Zunaira’s prison guard and once neighbor Atiq begins a private investigation and discovers that she is innocent but to no avail. The system is indeed so unjust that no one cares if a woman is actually guilty or not. With confronting the impossible task of justice under the circumstances, Atiq starts questioning his belief in the Taliban.
Clearly, The Swallows of Kabul is a very heavy and serious movie. It’s easy to compare it to the Oscar-nominated 2017 animated film The Breadwinner which uses the same setting and many of the same themes (the two would make an excellent double feature). At the same time, The Swallows of Kabul is in many ways a considerably grimmer film. Where The Breadwinner was shown through the whimsical point of view of a child and had some imaginative fairy tales to balance out the harshness of the reality, The Swallows of Kabul is nothing but harsh. Both Atiq and Mohsen spend most of their scenes being depressed and that’s pretty much what hangs in the air for the entire story: depression and monotony. The characters seem in a helpless situation and that is reflected in the overall tone. The script also takes its time to tell the story and let the audience acclimatize to this horrible environment the characters are living in.
Much like in The Breadwinner there is plenty of nervous tension; this is a world where one gets killed on the spot for such trivial things as laughing in public. The women are treated as nothing but objects in a very disturbing manner, and there are scenes of public executions. While I certainly wouldn’t call the movie anti-Islamic, the Taliban is presented as the worst sort of fanatics, and their misguided devotion can be extremely difficult to sit through. We watch them casually conversing on what seats will be the best for VIP’s during a hanging and as well hypocritically showing some of their more influential members secretly attending the local brothel, despite previously stoning a woman for being a prostitute. There is no attempt at humor here. The closest to levity present is a conversation between some old people discussing if the corpse of a holy man can smell, and the soundtrack features the song “Burka Blue” a deeply satirical song by an all-female anti-Taliban indie band from Kabul known simply as the “Burka Band”.
While I can easily imagine this story being told in live-action, the animation style suits the tone of the movie perfectly. The backgrounds are painted with watercolors, full of white spots sometimes melting into nothingness that greatly captures the harsh climate and the desert environment that (again) adds to the overall depressive mood. There’s great use of shadows and the character animations feel very realistic. To add to the naturalistic feeling of the presentation, the voice acting wasn’t recorded in a studio booth, but with all the voice actors recorded together to make the conversations feel as natural as possible.
One place where the script could have been a bit stronger is regarding Zunaira’s character. The film is mostly Atiq’s story. He’s the one who goes through all the inner struggles, he’s the one who constantly questions his own beliefs and morality, and together with his wife makes some not easy choices and sacrifices. Zunaira gets well established in the first act and it’s easy to understand her frustrations of being a woman within a tyrannically sexually repressive country. But after she goes to jail there isn’t really that much of her in the story. Compared to Atiq’s pronounced character arc she really comes off as two-dimensional, but perhaps that was how it was in the original source material as well. You can’t help but want a few more scenes with her, possibly interacting with Atiq in jail or really any more time the story could have spent with her that would have developed her more as a character, as I can see a complaint that she comes off as a “living McGuffin”.
The Swallows of Kabul is a great piece of animation and a very interesting character study that constantly keeps you emotionally invested and guessing as to what is going to happen next. At the same time be advised, it may not be ideal viewing for the very sensitive. There are some very brutal and tense sequences, the personalities of some characters are upsetting, and fates of some characters are far from uplifting. But that’s all part of what it has to offer: a great study of occupied Kabul and the different positions on morality from the people who live there.