The Swallows of Kabul

M, 81 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The Swallows of Kabul is set in the summer of 1998, a couple of years into Taliban rule in Afghanistan. This is strong stuff of course, yet not live action.

It is delicately packaged instead as an attractively rendered 2D animation in subdued pastels that look like a watercolour painting. A profoundly sad tale is told with a simple, light touch.

The film is based on the book of the same name, written by Mohammed Moulessehoul, under the name of Yasmina Khadra. The award-winning author Moulessehoul adopted this nom de plume for his writing while serving in the army in Algeria. He has talked since about how he has drawn on his experiences in the field.

Essentially, The Swallows of Kabul is a narrative involving two couples whose lives intersect, but is at the same time alive with many characters who are well-defined, interesting, sometimes even amusing.

At the time, the Afghanis are of course living in fear. Public executions frequently take place in the city squares and sport stadiums, and people cower in their houses during curfew as the Taliban hoon around in pick-ups, firing at random.

The main character, Zunaira (voiced by Zita Hanrot), is the artist wife of Mohsen (voiced by Swann Arlaud). She is free inside her home, happy working at her charcoal sketches while listening to banned musicians on her boombox turned down low.

Although the book sets events in 2001, the film has located them earlier during the Taliban regime. This works better.

Featureless and undifferentiated in their billowing gowns, the women bear the brunt of the regime

It is easier to believe that Zunaira, still full of vitality and hope, could be as she is. She is depicted as sumptuously beautiful, has to borrow a chador to go out, and would surely have been pulled up by the Taliban before 2001.

Every now and again a flock of swallows appears in the frame but they are not the birds the film title refers to.

It is the local women draped in their blue chadors who are the swallows, and it is their lot to be utterly unfree. Featureless and undifferentiated in their billowing gowns, they bear the brunt of the regime.

Mohsen and Zunaira met at university and can recall the time when women wore skirts, and when they could go out to the cinema. She believes in a future that could return to those freedoms. Mohsen is unfortunately no longer sure.

In one of the film’s early scenes, we see understand why this has come about for him.

Early one day, vendors were slicing fruit and grilling brochettes in the city square. The traffic was wending its way through the general chaos, and the market was alive with the seductive sights and sounds typical of a Middle Eastern souk. Then it became apparent there were men standing around with Kalashnikovs. Sounds of digging could be heard, and a pile of stones was delivered.

In the stoning that follows, Mohsen casts a stone too. It is the action of a sensitive man in a loving relationship who unaccountably succumbs to mob control. It seems even worse than the street urchins who get in on the act as well.

This very impressive animated feature about a recent dark chapter in Afghani history has clarity and compassion

From this point, a string of consequences cascade. Ultimately, Zunaira is taken to the women’s prison, formerly a wing of the university, where she comes under the watchful eye of Atiq (voiced by Simon Abkarian).

The former army veteran has reached a low-point in his life. He and his wife Mussarat (Hiam Abbass) have been childless and now she now is suffering from a terminal illness. He feels helpless. The older couple’s plight is a poignant counterpoint to the loving, young partners, Mohsen and Zunaira.

It is only the swallows, swooping and banking above the city, that are living free. When a soldier takes a pot shot and one falls from the sky it is a shocking act of casual cruelty but of a piece with everything else the regime is remembered for.

Moulessehoul’s highly regarded book has been brought to the screen by two female directors, Zabou Breitman, who contributed to the screenplay, and animator Elea Gobbe-Mevellec. It was screened at Un Certain Regard at the Cannes in 2019.

This very impressive story about a dark chapter in recent history has a clarity and compassion that lives on after the credits roll.

First published in the Canberra Times on 22 August 2020

Petit Paysan (aka Bloody Milk)

Subtle, taut drama that resonates beyond the family farm

M, 86 minutes

Streaming on Stan

4 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This is an impressive, subtle drama that was invited to Critics Week at Cannes in 2017 and has subsequently appeared at French film festivals. An unusual piece made by relatively unknown talent, it could easily have disappeared from view, but it has turned up on streaming services.

It is good to see a film about the travails of a young French dairy farmer re-surface in this accessible way, because it is terrific film making featuring a fine central performance by Swann Arlaud. As it turns out, three years after it was released, Petit Paysan is timely and topical as well.

The writer-director Hubert Charuel grew up on his parents’ dairy farm but he quit the land to study film at the prestigious French film school, La Femis, in Paris. This, a first feature that was filmed on the family farm, is likely to contain a lot of autobiographical elements.

At the age of 35, Pierre (Arlaud) has sole responsibility of the family farm and its top-ranked herd. He has an exacting milking schedule and of an evening, has dinner with his retired parents who still live on the property, or eats alone in front of the screen.

Conversation with an equable dad and difficult-to-please mum  (Isabel Candelier) is entertainingly combative and packed with rueful insights, like so many of the interchanges between Pierre and the other characters in his world. A sceptical gendarme, the bunch of burly mates he never has time to socialise with, the Belgian dairy farmer he watches on YouTube, and the pretty, dimpled baker his mother wants him to pair up with.

The screenplay by Charuel and co-writer Claude le Pape brims with humour and insight into its cast of characters.

surrealist touches to thriller tropes

Pierre has just learned over the internet that entire dairy herds have been put down after they were found to be suffering from a highly infectious disease, a dorsal haemorrhagic fever. He is starting to freak out at this news, even though events in  Charente are some distance away.

Without overplaying its hand, Petit Paysan displays some inspired cinematic touches that reflect Pierre’s state of mind. From the surrealist dream sequence of him asleep while his cows are milling around inside his house, to the thriller tropes that come into play when lives are dispatched in the barn.

Pascale the vet (Sara Giraudeau) and Pierre the farmer (Swann Arlaud)  Courtesy: UniFrance

Pierre’s sensible, down-to-earth sister, Pascale (Sara Giraudeau, also marvellous), is a local vet. He calls her in to check on Topaz, one of his Friesians who is with calf. She hasn’t been herself lately. Both Pascale and her assistant dismiss it as a case of mastitis, brought on by E. coli infection.

Like the bracing and unsentimental exchanges between Pierre and his parents, the exchanges between him and his sister are just as salty, brisk and amusing. Pascale is disinclined to take her brother’s early concerns as seriously as she might, and is clearly exasperated.

Blood along the spine means ‘DHF’  contagion, the ‘Belgian disease’

Pierre has phoned her 15 times, in perhaps as many minutes. Why should she respond in a timely fashion when Pierre’s behaviour is becoming stranger by the day?

Yet there is a suggestion that for all Pascale’s learned experience, Pierre’s lived experience is on the money this time. Anyway, he knows his beloved cows best. The next day, when he strokes Topaz along the spine his hand comes away smeared with blood. Yes, she has it, ‘DHF’, the ‘Belgian disease’.

As Pierre takes desperate action under the cover of night, the suspense grows as we find ourselves with some sympathy for the young farmer who is in fact breaking the law. His elderly neighbour may have witnessed something so Pierre coaches him in the correct response. Should someone ask, it’s ‘something that stinks but we don’t know what!’

Trapped between family loyalty and professional ethics, Pascale inevitably becomes compromised by what she knows and she and Pierre try to send their parents away on holiday in Corsica so they won’t suspect anything.

It’s a debacle that only makes sense in the context of Pierre’s dread of losing his entire herd, his reputation and his livelihood, and has some resonance with the strange times we find ourselves in.

Petit Paysan, a portrait of rural life that is free of sentiment, is a quiet achievement with characters that live on after the credits roll.

First published in the Canberra Times on 7 June 2020 and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz