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