Review: The Swallows of Kabul – Les hirondelles de Kaboul (2019)

The Swallows of Kabul – Les hirondelles de Kaboul (2019)

Directed by: Zabou Breitman, Elea Gobbé-Mévellec | 82 minutes | animation | Original voice cast: Simon Abkarian, Zita Hanrot, Swann Arlaud, Hiam Abbass, Jean-Claude Deret, Sébastien Pouderoux, Serge Bagdassarian, Michel Jonasz, Pascal Elbé, Laurent Natrella, Antonin Chalon, Mathilde Charbonneaux, Idir Chender, Karim Tougui, Xavier Guelfi, Camille Constantin, Mathieu Perotto

The animated film ‘The Swallows of Kabul’ (2019), an adaptation of Yasmina Khadra’s novel of the same name, takes us back to the period when almost all of Afghanistan was overrun by the Taliban and the country was renamed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Influenced by Salafism, Sharia is imposed with a heavy hand on a population that is not used to this strict religious influence. Quite arbitrarily, modern customs are banned, men have to grow beards and women have to cover themselves completely when they go outside.

It’s a man’s world in which the younger generation of religious fanatics are in charge and the elderly look back wistfully to their struggle with the Russians a decade earlier. There is no other role for women than that of an utensil. The burka has stripped them of their personality and made them interchangeable. This division of roles is the starting point of Zabou Breitman’s animation film, which depicts this desolate and violent world in the colors of a friendly, soft watercolor painting.

It’s 1998, three years before the Taliban gain global fame for their involvement in the September 11, 2001 attacks. We follow the lives of two married couples whose paths cross bizarrely. Atiq is a jailer in a prison where “sinful” women are held pending their sentence. This is often stoning by a mob in the street, or the bullet in mass executions in the football stadium of Kabul. His wife Mussarat is dying of cancer. Both feel that they are no longer part of this new merciless world. When the young and rebellious Zunaira is accused of murdering her husband and ends up in Atiq’s prison, Attiq and Mussarat decide to break the tenor of hatred in Kabul.

Fortunately, ‘The Swallows of Kabul’ is told as a cartoon. The watercolor makes the story a lot less gray and raw. Which is not to say that the film fails to convey the heaviness of this sad story. The drawing style is quite elementary, but the subtle animation is hyper-realistic, and that combination creates a tantalizing abstraction of reality. It is not for nothing that Breitman chooses to let her characters mainly speak with the eyes. Large round dots that manage to convey a lot of emotion. What happens when we can no longer see those eyes? Cartoon character or not, is it easier to stone a person or give a shot in the neck when the mirror is hidden to his soul behind a piece of clothing?

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