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CANNES 2019 Un Certain Regard

Review: The Swallows of Kabul

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- CANNES 2019: Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbe-Mevellec dive into the Taliban’s Kabul and achieve a very beautiful animated adaptation of Yasmina Khadra’s novel

Review: The Swallows of Kabul

“No man owes anything whatsoever to a woman.” In Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, in the late 1990s, the reign of the Taliban has plunged local society into obscurantism, under the iron rule of the Sharia and its armed zealots. The university is destroyed, music is forbidden, stonings are taking place in the middle of the street, and public executions in the national stadium open football matches: fear has seized the consciousness and everyday lives of the citizens. And for all the women forced to be escorted to walk the city streets and condemned to stay hidden under the traditional burqa with its grid at eye level, this life was synonymous with nothingness, male domination having taken crushing proportions in the name of religion (and in the name of mass control). It is at the heart of this very dark period, which unfortunately is still being repeated across the world and should always be denounced, that Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra had chosen to immerse herself, in her excellent best-selling novel The Swallows of Kabul (published in 2002). The story is now turned into a very good animated film, The Swallows of Kabul, directed by French filmmakers Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbe-Mevellec, and presented in Un Certain Regard at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival.

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Intelligently adapted by Sébastien Tavel, Patricia Mortagne and Zabou Breitman, the story crosses the paths of three main characters: former moudjahidine Atiq, turned guard of the local prison after having fought for years against the Soviets; and a young couple composed of unemployed school teachers Mohsen, who carries a profound depression (feeling his own values being dangerously sucked in by the context), and Zunaira, a very beautiful woman longing for freedom. Around them, a myriad of secondary characters gravitates: Mussarat, Atiq’s wife, sick with terminal cancer (and whom Atiq should repudiate, according to an insistent former colleague of the prison guard); Quassim, the merciless chief of the vice squad; Arash, a professor who has opened a clandestine school; a former mullah dreaming of escape, etc. A fatal incident after a fight pushes Zunaira in Atiq’s prison and, like a thunderbolt, turns the latter’s life upside down. But the young woman’s execution is looming, and the oppressors are watching for any slipup…

How to keep the hope and the desire to live in a mortiferous environment, in an open sky prison system where women in particular occupy the worst of all submissive positions? Shaping a film whose soft graphics help address dramatic events head on and without too much psychological violence done on the viewer, the two directors get the most out of a simple but perfectly articulated story. As it calmly weaves together all the threads of the composition (topics such as couplehood, love, former fighters, integrity, human weaknesses, and glimmers of hope under a dictatorial sky, among others), the film always respects the rules necessary for a kind of suspense. The Swallows of Kabul is an aesthetically and narratively beautiful example of the affecting power of essential, humanist, and feminist ideas that auteur animation offers, and which can reach broader audiences of both adult and younger viewers. 

Produced by Les Armateurs and co-produced by Arte France CinémaMélusine Productions from Luxemburg, Close Up Films and RTS from Switzerland, and KNM from Monaco, with the support of Eurimages, among others. The Swallows of Kabul is sold internationally by Celluloid Dreams.

(Translated from French)

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