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The Swallows of Kabul - Film Review

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. My debut poetry pamphlet is available at
Published September 5th 2020
Romance amidst the rubble
In the animated film The Swallows of Kabul everyone seems to be waiting. Taliban soldiers wait for their next order and, ultimately, for paradise; the liberal-minded wait for freedom; condemned women wait to be stoned; bullets wait for triggers; nooses wait for necks.

Only the street children seem happy living in the moment - running between the rubble and wounded veterans of Afghanistan in 1998.

Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman, Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec, Un Certain Regard at Cannes, Les hirondelles de Kaboul, Zita Hanrot, film, Animation, Manchester Animation Festival
Poster for The Swallows of Kabul (film). Copyright is believed to belong to the distributor of the film, the publisher of the film or the graphic artist., Fair use,

The soundscape of the film is similarly restless - even when night eventually falls, dogs bark continuously, out of sight. Nature fills the vacuum of noise left by the ban on recorded and live music, especially of the secular kind. Only the excited chirps of Swallows fill the ears with something more melodious.

It is against this background that Zunaira (seductively voiced by Zita Hanrot) and Mohsen (Swann Arlaud) live their young-married life. Zunaira spends her days clandestinely drawing on her wall and Mohsen dreams of being able to teach history, without censorship. Despite his progressive nature he sometimes breaths in the hateful atmosphere surrounding him. At first, he seems only to be an observer within a baying crowd of men. But he later confesses that he also threw a stone at the head of the convicted woman.

Directors and screenwriters, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec (who studied animation at the Gobelins School in Paris), made the actors perform their lines in the studio as if it were live, rather than statically voicing them at microphones. The recording maintains their stutters and coughs, and hesitations to achieve the naturalistic feel. This enhances the dialogue, but it is in the painted, deep-set dark eyes that we see the unspoken pain of Mohsen and other protagonists.

"My silence isn't rejection, it's because I'm helpless," says prison warder Atiq (Simon Abkarian) to his terminally-ill wife Mussarat (Hiam Abbass).

Despite its festering anger and despair, The Swallows of Kabul is, at heart, a film made up of love stories. As sunlight floods into their room Zunaira and Mohsen wake up entwined, like a honeymoon couple and they are each other's life-force until an argument and accident has fatal consequences.

From then on the narrative focuses on a more complex kind of love. In particular, what is the true nature of Atiq's feelings and intentions towards the jailed Zunaira? Why does Mussarat visit Zunaira, without telling Atiq about it?

The script is adapted from the novel by Algerian writer Muhammed Moulessehoul (who adopted his wife's name, Yasmina Khadra, as a pseudonym to avoid military censorship). His story brilliantly brings home to us the choice between living a lie or supreme self-sacrifice - which those living under tyranny have to agonise over on a daily basis.

But why not shoot the film with actors on location? Timbuktu (2014) used this technique. It told a similar story, using - often inexperienced - non-western actors to great effect.

Part of the reason for opting for animation must be down to budgeting. The watercolour, hand-drawn style is not just eye-catching in itself but also allows scenes to seamlessly morph from the present to the past and back again.

Equally, although the sight of blood soaking through the headdress of a stoned woman is always horrific, at least, in animation, it is not gratuitous.

Footage of war-torn Afghanistan has also been so depressingly constant in news coverage, over recent years, that we inure ourselves to it and would probably avoid going out to view similar images on the cinema screen.

The use of animation also avoids the distraction of seeing actors who we know from other roles. Even in Kathryn Bigelow's rightly acclaimed The Hurt Locker, it was impossible not to think:' He used to be Mike in Neighbours,' no matter how good Guy Pearce's portrayal of a Sergeant in Iraq might have been.

Swallows of Kabul entices us to empathise with characters who are like us but living in a different reality. A particularly telling sequence is when we see events from inside a chadaree (burqa), which Zunaira reluctantly wears.

Will stories like this one be seen by Western leaders and voters before a future intervention in the Arab world? Probably not, but that is not the fault of filmmakers like Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec. In another world, their flights of imagination and empathy would get the kind of box office numbers which DreamWorks and Disney take for granted.
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Why? Film which paints a vivid picture of Afghanistan between the wars
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by Jonathon Tonkin on 24/08/2020
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