It's a simple, animated story set in a complex place; Kabul under the Taliban. Mohsen (voiced by Swann Arlaud) is a teacher whose ability to teach honestly and openly is severely restricted by the laws of the Taliban. His young wife, Zunaira (voiced by Zita Hanrot), is an artist whose work is equally restricted. Yet, despite the oppressive regime they live under, the couple strives to fulfil their passions in a way that is true to their relationship but which places them at considerable risk. Their marriage is counterpointed by a very different relationship. Atiq (voiced by Simon Abkarian) is head jailer at the Taliban prison where women are held before being stoned or hanged to death. His wife, Mussarat (voiced by Hiam Abbass) is a housebound cancer sufferer living out her final days in a mixture of pain and a drug-induced haze. For all his brutality and unsympathetic dealings with his female prisoners, Atiq is confounded by the impending loss of his wife and unable to deal with her or her disease. To reveal how these two stories intersect would be unforgivable, but intersect they do and the results are unexpected, deeply moving and, ultimately, full of hope in a place where such a quality seems impossible.
Directed with an unexpectedly light but ultimately authentic touch by Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec, The Swallows of Kabul is told almost like a fable, its beautiful watercolour imagery (by animators Alix Arrault, Alice Guzzo, Danas Bereznickas and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec) belying the dark and horrifying world that these characters live in. But this is not so much a ‘good guys, bad guys’ tale. Certainly, the Taliban are portrayed unflinchingly as cruel and tyrannical but, in the opening scene when Mohsen witnesses the stoning of an adulterous woman, he is not without his own complicity to the barbarous act. Conversely, the filmmakers resist casting Atiq as a two- dimensional villain. Instead, his character offers a humanity to his portrayal of a Taliban fighter that isn’t what we expect. But make no mistake, the softness we see in Atiq’s character is by no means a suggestion that all Taliban followers might have this hidden side. In many ways, he is the exception that proves the rule.
As the story unfolds, the complexity of the situation in which these characters find themselves intensifies and for a while, the film becomes suspenseful and gripping, almost a thriller, before it resolves itself in an ending that is part fable, part romance and part tragedy.
The Swallows of Kabul sits in that unusual genre of the adult animation (this is definitely no children’s story) and, in doing so, proves that the power of visual art is something that can work on screen in a way that live-action sometimes can’t. You only need to take a look at Jon Favreau’s The Lion King (2019) to see an example of a movie that makes the mistake of thinking that all stories are better when the characters and action is ‘real’ (even virtually real) and pays the price of the loss of audience connection and the emotional believability of its characters. In The Lion King, it’s about personifying animals. In The Swallows of Kabul it’s about humanising terror. In both cases, the potency of the story is served well by the animated image in a way that ‘naturalism’ doesn’t quite capture. (did you hear that, Disney?). The animation studio behind The Swallows of Kabul, Les Armateurs, learned that lesson early on with beautiful, whimsical but deeply human and honest works like The Triplets of Belleville (2003) and continued to apply it with later animated masterpieces like Ernest & Celestine (2012). Their latest effort is an exquisite work; both exquisitely painful and exquisitely uplifting. It’s a credit to the filmmakers, the animators, the voice actors and (of course) to the author of the original work, that such a beautiful film has been wrought from such a terrible time and place.