Yasmina Khadra ran for the presidency of his native Algeria (not so impressively), but his most celebrated novel (written in French) tells of life in Afghanistan under the Taliban. The truth isn’t pretty, but the animated film adaptation is strikingly beautiful. Islamist extremism deepens and compounds a freak tragedy in Zabou Breitman & Elea Gobbe-Mevellec’s The Swallows of Kabul which screens during the Alliance Française’s 2020 Animation First Festival, in New York.
Mohsen and Zunaira Ramat were a modern educated couple. Now she must wear a burqa and must be accompanied by her husband whenever she leaves the house. Despite his reasonableness, Mohsen gets caught up in the mania of the moment and joins the fatal stoning of a convicted prostitute (whether she truly was one is anyone’s guess). Zunaira does not take his confession well. Rather fatefully, it causes an argument that leads to a horrible accident that Zunaira will be harshly punished for.
She will be the latest captive in the prison Atiq Shaukat oversees. In fact, she is the only prisoner, because the others have already been put to death. If Shaukat was ever troubled by the torture and executions, he is numb to it all now—at least until he spies Zunaira. Of course, he was not supposed to. This is not a Sybil Danning women-in-prison movie. Only female trustees should ever see a women prisoner without her hazmat suit. Sadly, she just doesn’t care anymore, but the pathos of her situation just might stir some feelings in Shaukat. Ironically, his terminally ill wife Mussarat is happy instead of jealous at the prospect of Shaukat’s emotional re-awakening, because it alleviates some of the guilt she feels for the way his life ended up. Nevertheless, Ramat is due to be executed as part of a Taliban public extravaganza, so Shaukat’s questions only bring anger and suspicion upon himself.
Thematically, Swallows is quite similar to Nora Twomey’s The Breadwinner, but its lush, watercolor-like animation is even more elegant, whereas the GKIDS release is probably somewhat more emotionally involving. Swallows still packs quite a punch. The adaptation credited to Breitman, Patricia Mortagne, and Sebastien Tavel maybe slightly softens Khadra’s ending, but the tragic inevitability of it all will definitely haunt viewers.
Perhaps most importantly, the film version maintains all the complexity of Shaukat’s character, as well as the unflinchingly honest depiction of the Taliban’s brutality and contempt for civilized culture. Of course, music is strictly forbidden, but Shaukat, the former mujahedeen, is rebuked more than once for have his shirt-sleeves rolled up to the elbow. How scandalous.
Swallows is another great example of ambitious animated films that arguably do a better job of addressing serious events and issues than most live action films. It is definitely in a league with modern masterworks like Funan, The Breadwinner, and Chico & Rita. Very highly recommended, The Swallows of Kabul screens this Saturday (2/8), as part of Animation First.