THE SWALLOWS OF KABUL gets 8/10 A regime hard to Swallow

Directed by Zabou Breitman, Eléa Gobé Mévellec

Starring Hiam Abbass, Zita Hanrot, Swann Arlaud, Simon Abkarian


Mohammed Moussehol’s 2002 Novel Swallows of Kabul (written under his wife’s name Yasmina Khadra to avoid military censorship) gets a gorgeous animated treatment from French Directors, Zabou Breitman, and Eléa Gobé Mévellec. Its unique and striking watercolour style animation is nothing compared to the animated dynamic lighting and shadow achieved. Car headlights wash over textured landscapes, and war ravaged streets, stretching and warping shadows in ways that ground the otherwise stylised imagery in reality. This is paired by some foley and sound design work which focuses on familiar everyday sounds to bring this faraway warzone into a familiar realm of the senses. It’s a wonderful balance which is vital in bringing this film to your front door, as depictions of Afghanistan under the Taliban through the news, whilst horrifying, often yields a sense of distance and otherworldliness to viewers in the Western World.

Set in Afghanistan in 1998, Swallows gives us an intimate perspective on life under the Taliban, and the extreme mistreatment of women via the perspective of two couples. A middle aged jailer, Atiq (Simon Abkarian) and his cancer stricken wife Musarrat (Hiam Abbass) – despite being terminally ill, she is devastated when she can’t fully fulfil her duties as a wife to her resentful and affectionless husband. A younger couple, Moshen (Swann Arlaud) and Zunaira (Zita Hanrot), remain in love, and despite her optimism and defiance in the face of it all, Taliban rule is eating away at the resolve of Moshen. When they witness the public stoning of a prostitute, they find themselves reluctantly and almost mindlessly casting a stone among a baying crowd – a crowd which also includes young children cheering on at such a commonplace occurrence.

It’s here where the film really finds its themes. Swallows of Kabul is about legacies and influence- how children shape the future. And not in a throwaway bumper sticker philosophy – but consider Kabul under the Taliban. History is erased, fanatical religion overruns personal freedoms, and brainwashes and radicalises citizens to the point where people don’t know who to trust, and are very reluctant to discuss any opposition to the oppressive rule. Mirroring a scene where children are present at a public stoning, another brief moment, which would otherwise be considered secondary world building – shows bored children on a dried up riverbank, throwing a stone at a starving street dog for entertainment. Cruelty and indifference bleeds out into this world, and the living sponges that are children absorb it all, and perpetuate it. Whilst the obvious dramatic conclusion relies on characters inhabiting this nightmare shedding their indifference, it’s the epilogue which strikes as the heart of the film, because it carries with it the hope that these players ignite when they risk life and limb to teach the next generation, and equip them with the tools to overcome misinformation.

Swallows of Kabul effectively balances the depressing and despairing nature of it’s setting with some of the most striking visuals I’ve seen in an animated film. It’s a challenging film, yet easily digestible and not too heavy handed. It’s also a rare example of a film of this type which would warrant a second viewing, rather than leaving it ticked off on the “loved it but would never want to see it again list”. Very much worth your time.


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