This is a candidate for the standout film of My French Film Festival. It is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen and also one of the saddest and most desperate despite a more optimistic tone towards the end of the narrative. As an animation it affected me as much as classics like Grave of the Fireflies (Japan 1988). There are many kinds of animated films but as far as drawn/painted animation is concerned, I would place French productions (linked to a graphic novel industry) alongside Japanese anime and manga.
The source here is a novel by ‘Yasmina Khadra’, the pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an Algerian military man who chose to disguise his identity to avoid censure. The novel first appeared in 2002. The film adaptation is by two women, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec. Both women are credited as directors. Breitman is one of three writers who adapted the novel and Gobbé-Mévellec is the animator responsible for the overall graphic design and the ‘look’ of the film. I haven’t read the original novel but given the nature of the story, the gender shift in the control of the ‘voices’ of the characters would be worth exploring. (I’m referring here to the broader sense of how a character in a narrative can articulate how they feel rather than simply what they say.)
As the title suggests, the story is set in Kabul, but at a specific time between 1998 and 2001 when the Taliban occupied the Afghan capital that was reduced to ruins. They have imposed Sharia Law and are taking drastic action against anyone who attempts to flout the new restrictions on behaviour. The narrative focuses on two couples. Atiq is an older war veteran who has been made the gaoler of women condemned to die for lewd behaviour and other crimes. His wife Mussarat, the woman who nursed him after he was wounded, is now seriously ill. Zunaira is a young and very attractive teacher and artist who now rarely leaves the house because she cannot bear to wear a burqua. Her equally young husband Mohsen is also a teacher now despairing at what has happened to Kabul. Each of these four characters is attempting to come to terms with their situation and each finds that either they feel compelled to act in particular ways or that they attempt to do what they think is right only to discover that it leads to an unexpected and usually bad outcome.
I’ve seen some criticism that by focusing on an ‘academic’ couple, the story takes the kind of route that might be easiest for Western audiences, but this is balanced by the story of Atiq and Mussarat. In each case the couples meet others who offer different trajectories. Mohsen meets his old university teacher and Atiq meets a childhood friend and an elderly man – possibly the character who acts like a kind of wise man. The women meanwhile are caught between neighbours who look out for them and other women who seem to have become Taliban collaborators, acting as prison guards with their Kalashnikovs. The Taliban seem to revel in their own hypocrisy, lounging about with dancing girls behind closed doors and enforcing the social laws with violence. Everyone else is to some extent lost and bewildered.
There have been many narratives released in the West about what has happened in Afghanistan over the last 30-40 years. I don’t know which, if any, offer the most accurate representation – probably it isn’t possible. Many are stories created by exiles or Western observers. The ones I know best are those by the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and especially by his daughter Samira. Both Mohsen and Samira have used elements of absurdity and surrealism as part of their approach. The most relevant comparison for The Swallows of Kabul is possibly Samira’s At Five in the Afternoon (Iran-France 2003), set immediately after the Taliban have been ousted by international forces. In that film a young woman, Noqreh, rebels against her conservative father and attends a school where she takes part in an election for ‘President’. I was struck by how in both her film and The Swallows of Kabul the two young women flout the strict dress code by wearing a pair of white court shoes with a low heel. Noqreh changes shoes as she moves from a Koranic school to the new school where women speak out. Zunaira wears her shoes defiantly, knowing she is asking for trouble. The shoes are the only ‘personal’ aspect of a woman’s appearance on the street – every woman wears the same burqua (though the children seem to recognise their mothers’ birqua when it is borrowed). The uniformity of the burqua-clad women is the other strong image I remember from the Iranian film and it is repeated in the still from The Swallows of Kabul in the image at the head of this post.
The strength of The Swallows of Kabul for me is in the approach to the animation style which I think works to create that sense of realism counterposed by surrealism. Much of the production process is explained in the Press Pack which is extremely useful. Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec explain in some detail how the animation style developed. The animation house Les Armateurs, best-known internationally for The Triplets of Belleville and Ernest & Celestine were involved from the start but Zabou Breitman was convinced that she wanted a process that involved actors performing scenes first which would then be drawn, rather than voice actors adding dialogue to a conventional animation. Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec then provided the background ‘plates’ for the representation of the city and created the overall look of the film as a traditional 2D ‘drawn’ animation using brushwork and washes of colour. The filmed performances then led to a process similar too but distinct from rotoscoping which Breitman felt would be too ‘fluid’. The final result with the actors placed against the background offers a unique representation of Kabul under the Taliban. The dialogue is voiced by mainly French actors and I noted that Swann Arlaud appears as Mohsen, one of his three appearances in the My French Film Festival. Mussarat is voiced by the great Palestinian actor Hiam Abbass.
I really don’t understand why this film hasn’t got a UK release. It has appeared in festivals in the UK and is currently available (with English subs) for streaming on Curzon and also (at a lower price) on YouTube. Here’s a trailer with English subs.
It could be argued that this film is more ‘about the South’ than ‘from the South’ but it certainly worked for me as what felt like a much more authentic ‘voice’ from Afghanistan than most of the news or current affairs programmes that I have seen. It formed part of the festival’s documentary strand and in this specific screening also part of a strand termed ‘The Critical Room’ in a session titled ‘Afghanistan – the Civil Society’. This comprised a discussion before the screening in which three panelists offered personal viewpoints on the prospects for civil society in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of western forces in 2014. The panelists were Director of PRIO (Peace Research Institute Oslo) Kristian Berg Harpviken, leader of the Afghanistan Comittee Linda Våge and the Iranian filmmaker and author of the international bestseller Afghanistan, Where God Only Comes to Weep (2002) Siba Shakib. The debate was convened by Jarle Roheim Håkonsen from NRK (Norwegian Public Service Broadcaster).
I was very impressed by the level of debate and contributions from the floor. I thought the convenor asked some ‘leading’ questions about the potential pragmatism of the Taliban but the three panelists gave much more considered answers. The consensus seemed to be that the best hope for Afghanistan was that left to its own devices a stronger civil society in the country could deal with the Taliban in its own way and that the best support for the Afghanis would be concrete infrastructure improvements such as roads, power supply, transportation systems etc. – and not the failed American-funded efforts which have so far not delivered. Interestingly much of what the panel (and the audience) said was re-iterated in the film.
Finding Ali was written, directed and filmed by Pål Hollender for his own production company and was presented via a 2K digital print on what is, I think, the biggest screen used during the festival. It looked terrific. Hollender had first visited Afghanistan with his camera in 2001 and had befriended a nine year-old Afghan boy, Ali. The boy had a real personality and quickly learned sufficient English in Kabul (where his father had a shop) to converse quite freely on his feelings about the situation he found himself in. Hollender decided ten years on to return to Afghanistan and to try to find Ali to see how he had changed, along with the country. He cleverly structures his documentary narrative so that first we only see the younger Ali in clips from the earlier film as Hollender tours the country asking local police about the boy – mainly, I think, as an excuse to expose some of the local conditions. He finds Ali eventually.
Hollender is to some extent a ‘performer’ in his documentary but not in the same way that a Michael Moore or a Nick Broomfield takes over (and ‘provokes’) the action. I found Hollender more engaging and quite witty in his attempts to get points across. Some of what he uncovers is quite mind-boggling, including the luxury hotel and armour-plated vehicles used by some western personnel. Later on in the film he becomes the centre of a quite dramatic sequence but mostly he allows ordinary Afghanis (all men except for a single woman) to speak directly to camera and what they say is quite revealing – and quite shaming for western supporters of the ‘War Against Terror’. (Hollender recognises the difficulties he faces attempting to ask women to speak.) There are a few cinematic devices in the film such as occasional freeze frames but Hollender’s strength is finding simple but powerful images. He’s also good on simple historical observations, e.g. showing how Kabul looked in the 1960s. In fact he finishes on what should be a much better-known quotation from the British General who in 1880 suggested to London that the best policy was to “leave the Afghans alone and they will have less reason to hate us”. The British Raj in India has a lot to answer for, but not all its leaders were fools. Finding Ali deserves a cinema release – I hope the 2K print means that it will get one in Scandinavia at least.
Here’s a taste from YouTube: