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Swallows Of Kabul, The (2019)

Afghanistan, the late nineties. Mohsen and Zunaira are young and in love, and despite the hopelessness of their situation, still dream of a better future. Meanwhile, the officious guard of the local prison is caring for his dying wife. These apparently distinct stories will come together in a most unexpected manner.

The Swallows Of Kabul is directed and co-written by Zabou Breitman and Elea Gobbe-Mevellec, based on the novel from Yasmina Khadra. The film has attracted considerable acclaim, screening in selection at Cannes,  winning awards at Annecy and Animation Is Film festivals and nominations for European Film Awards and the Cesars among others

It's not hard to see why it has had such success. From the very beginning, the film creates an extremely evocative sense of time and place. It's a world that most of us have experienced only through film or television, or read about or seen on the news. But that has always been from an American or Western perspective, usually through the eyes of soldiers. This story takes place at the height of the Taliban's rule, some years before The War On Terror. It puts us right in the heart of it, and shows us behind closed doors.

The Kabul we are introduced to is a terrifyingly oppressive place. The once-thriving city, glimpsed sparingly through flashback, lies in ruins. Its bookshops, cinemas and universities standing as memories of what once was. Armed patrols stalk the streets, meeting out their idea of "justice" to anyone who dare step out of line.  The only women we see are clad head to toe in burquas.

In the midst of all this, lie pockets of normality. We see young children pretending to be their favourite football players as they have a kickabout in the ruins. Minutes earlier they were attending - and more disturbingly, participating in- a public stoning execution of a woman for unspecified moral crimes. It explores how easy it is for good people to be caught up in a crowd mentality. In fact, it's such a moment of weakness by Mohsen that sets the films later events in motion.

Contrasted to this is the character of Zunaira. When first encounter her, she is listening to forbidden music and painting. She's a vibrant, modern woman brimming with life. Depicted as a strikingly beautiful woman, she's in contrast with almost everything around her- and she's essentially imprisoned. And it's tempting to see that it's only really with his interactions with Zunaira that we see the "real" Mohsen. For most of his time on screen, he's a very serious young man, just trying to avoid attracting the attention of the authorities. But in a few snatched moments of joy with his wife, we are able to glimpse moments of what he once was.

Similarly, our other main character, jailor Atiq's life revolves around his wife. As a tool of the state, imprisoning women awaiting execution for breaking strict religious laws, he's not exactly easy to warm to. But we see his pain as he faces losing the love of his life. This is not a film of black and whites and depicts the complexities of human nature.

The Swallows Of Kabul is a beautifully animated film. The city is brought to life in beautiful watercolour and the painterly style extends to the characters too. The animation style is comparable to The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya but still has something of a flavour of its own.

Far from creating a distance from its subject, the fact that this is animated in such a style only makes it feel somehow more personal and emotionally affecting. Perhaps it is because by eschewing realism, it leaves it up to your imagination to fill in the blanks.

As you may have gathered, this film is not aimed at audiences looking for a fun Friday night flick. It's a very sombre film, as befitting such serious subject matter. Lighter moments are there, but few and far between. The atmosphere can be extremely oppressive at times.

Although the film covers similar territory as Nora Twomey's The Breadwinner, they are very different films. Twomey's film is aimed more at children, so has much more of a hopeful feel. Swallows Of Kabul is an adult film, with an adult cast. Although both films celebrate the strength and endurance of the human spirit, Breitman and Gobbe-Mevelle's story is bleaker and less uplifting. Especially as we know that although this is a fictional tale, it represents thousands of true stories just like it.

Light entertainment it may not be, but it is a beautifully made and emotionally affecting masterpiece and a proper example of grown-up filmmaking. Not the film for when you're looking for simple escapism, but if you're looking for an animated film with more meat on its bones, this is it. One of the best truly "adult" animations for years.


IN A NUTSHELL:  As exquisitely animated as it is movingly told, Swallows Of Kabul is an unforgettable experience.

Swallows Of Kabul will Screen at Animation First In New York this weekend.