Co-directors Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévell find a neat way to adapt Yasmina Khadra’s 2002 novel to the visual language of cinema in The Swallows of Kabul, rendering the film in 2D hand-drawn animation that mimics the style of watercolour painting. I say “neat,” rather than “ingenuous” or “beautiful,” because I was left with the feeling that they could have been more experimental with the format. According to Breitman and Gobbé-Mévell, the performers were recorded enacting every scene, and these recordings were then painstakingly studied by the animators to heighten the sense of realism, as well as catch every minute detail of facial expression and body language. An impressive feat, no doubt, but this fidelity to perceptual realism neuters the potential of the medium.
There is a fantastic moment towards the end of the narrative, in which an overhead wide shot of a man walking with a firearm gradually dissolves to white, with the background fading out bit-by-bit until the character is a single, solitary figure on a plain canvas; the man is then abstracted into a black inkblot, which morphs into a flock of birds soaring across the screen. This transition is honestly breath-taking, and it hints at the great film The Swallows of Kabul may have been. Unfortunately, the vibrancy of its images are mostly subsumed to the strict codes of the continuity style that conventional narrative cinema is founded upon: lots of dialogue-driven scenes in which characters discuss themes while being captured in inexpressive shot-reverse-shots. By privileging verbal exposition over visual expression, the filmmakers rarely give their images space to truly breathe; this is a pity, as they are able to craft a number of truly striking silent sequences. A single shot of a row of nooses lightly swaying in the centre of a football stadium packs more of an emotional punch than any of the scenes of traditional melodrama.
Luckily, Breitman and Gobbé-Mévell are working from undeniably powerful source material. Set in a Kabul struggling under oppressive Taliban rule, The Swallows of Kabul paints a nuanced, balanced vision of a conflict that is too often treated in over-simplified, hysteric terms. The Taliban are not simply portrayed as heinous, mindless villains; their agenda is contextualized within the wider sphere of global geo-politics. Also, the citizens living under their control are not passive victims, but a lively community of creative individuals — some of whom have given over to the enforced repression and given up hope, while others engage in acts of resistance to varying degrees of severity.
Mohsen (Swann Arlaud) and Zunaira (Zita Hanrot) are a young married couple who long to return to teaching History and Art, but the Taliban forcibly deny their freedom to teach their own material. The two’s perception of themselves as idealistic progressives eager to fight for liberty is complicated when Mohsen feels compelled to throw a rock at a prostitute during a public stoning. Mohsen carries the guilt of that single action throughout the rest of the narrative, questioning to what extent he’s come to internalize the dominant, misogynistic ideology of the violent fundamentalists who govern so much of his life. This shame leads to him to increasingly distance himself from Zunaira, causing a substantial rift in their seemingly ideal relationship.
In parallel to this, there is the marriage of a much older couple, Atiq (Abkarian) and Mussarat (Hiram Abbass). He proposed to her when she was already considered a washed-up spinster by his friends, and she still encourages him to divorce her for a younger woman. When her cancer is revealed to be incurable, Atiq can’t help but feel a sense of relief, as he begins to scope out potential replacements. Each character is affected in various ways by the tyranny of Taliban rule, and The Swallows of Kabul details with a great deal of sophistication the various forms that this abuse can take, from the explicit methods of public executions used to keep citizens in line, to the strict regulation of educational programmes to morph the ideology of the upcoming generation to accept their actions passively.
The two couples make for a pointed contrast: the older pair have settled into a life of quiet resignation, while the younger characters are fiery and defiant. It is a testament to the film’s skill that it never shies away from portraying the horrifying extent of the Taliban’s barbarianism while still ending on a note of hope. Despite my misgivings with The Swallows of Kabul, this introduction of uplift into the otherwise overwhelmingly bleak narrative genuinely floored me — it’s easily one of the most moving moments I’ve seen in a film this year.