Swallows of Kabul, The (2019)

A painterly and potent animation that tackles the terrible oppression faced by women in Taliban-occupied Kabul in the late 1990s.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dir. Zabou Breitman & Elea Gobbe-Mevellec
2019 | France | Animation/Drama | 81 mins | 1.85:1 | French
NC16 (passed clean) for mature content

Cast:  Simon Abkarian, Zita Hanrot, Swann Arlaud, Hiam Abbass
Plot: Summer 1998, Kabul in ruins is occupied by the Taliban. In love despite the daily violence and misery, Mohsen and Zunaira want to believe in the future. But a senseless act by Mohsen will upset their lives forever.
Awards: Nom. for Un Certain Regard Award (Cannes)
International Sales: Celluloid Dreams

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: Screener
Spoilers: No

It’s been a while since I’ve seen an animated film tackling women issues in the Middle East, though a recent comparison to The Swallows of Kabul could be 2017’s The Breadwinner

Although Swallows is a French production with French-speaking characters, such is the animation’s painterly aesthetic as well as its nuanced characterisations that you can’t help but be pulled into its world. 

Such beauty and subtlety are a welcome relief for a film that constantly hints at violence, as a dense atmosphere of oppression enshrouds the people in Taliban-occupied Kabul. 

The filmmakers insist that voices were recorded first before any animation was done, so that the watercolour drawings will reflect the characters’ attitudes and emotions.

The women have it the worst, as they are made to wear burqas in terrible heat, though that is probably the least they are worried about.  There is nothing much they could do, and even men who are conflicted about the state of affairs in their city are powerless. 

So, it is this environment of daily struggle and extrajudicial violence (e.g. stoning of women without fair trial) that lovebirds Mohsen and Zunaira find themselves in, their modern values suppressed. 

The filmmakers dovetail their story with another naturally, that of Atiq and Mussarat, a conservatively-minded couple who have been married for a long time.  These two storylines combine to potent effect as an irreversible act causes their lives to intertwine. 

The best thing about The Swallows of Kabul is that the filmmakers are able to situate the events in the film in the context of its time and place, plus the fact that being made in animation doesn’t mean it is any less easy to watch.

Grade: A-



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