Film Review | The Swallows of Kabul: Prisons within prisons

Winner of the Valletta Film Festival’s Audience Award, Zabou Breitman’s and Eléa Gobé Mévellec’s adaptation of Yasmina Khadra’s novel is a beautifully animated journey of harrowing complexity

Unsurprisingly sweeping up the Audience Award at this year’s edition of the Valletta Film Festival whose votes were cast after each film, with viewers given a leaflet on entry that they’d tear to indicate their preferred rating The Swallows of Kabul is a richly accomplished feat indeed, boasting an enchantingly wrenching lyricism in both narrative and visual dimension, but never eschewing psychological depth and political urgency.

Formerly a soldier, Atiq (Simon Abkarian) is now one of the guards on shift at the Kabul prison, where supposed criminals are kept prior to execution by the Taliban regime. To compound the drudgery of his existence, his wife Mussarat (Hiam Abbass) has been diagnosed with cancer, which, in turn, compounds her own sense of guilt at being a ‘burden’ to her husband she was already too old when they married, by the standards of the stifling and sexist social expectations they all operate under.

But the younger, more intellectually-inclined couple of Zunaira (Zita Hanrot) and Mohsen (Swann Arlaud) take pleasure in flouting these same expectations. Entertaining notions of one day leaving what has become a wretched, totalitarian hellhole, the pair are eventually brought to heel by the regime, in a trajectory that eventually finds them colliding with Atiq’s own troubled journey.

Written and directed by Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec from the novel by Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra (a pen name for Mohammed Moulessehoul, adopted to eschew military censorship), the ensuing French-language film actually has the overall feel of some of that country’s more accomplished bande dessinée: the Francophone take on the comic book genre which as a rule tends to take a broader and subtler sweep in both style and subject matter.  

Stunning but un-showy watercolour-style animation grabs your attention from the first frame, the sandy mid-tones of dusty, sun-drenched Afghanistan a deceptive balm for the hard-to-swallow realities that follow soon after. The mass stoning of a woman branded as a prostitute immediately signals that the relatively serene marketplace scene that introduces us to the village was a ruse, a false promise of serenity: much like the oppressive rule of the Taliban that holds sway over the city Khadra’s novel was first published in French in 2002 the prevailing mood of ‘quietly getting along’ is revealed to be buttressed by the most inhumane mechanisms.

But this revelation comes to us in subtle, leisurely and disquietingly unfolding layers, never allowing for any histrionics to coarsely crack the edifice of this rich, mature work. Atiq’s interactions with his colleagues expose the banality of evil at play within the regime, where executions are show-pieces branded as ‘nice’ appetisers ahead of a sporting events, where bored guards shuffle in and out of prison shifts, stealing a cigarette break here and there, and where side-jobs dealing drugs for the Taliban are presented as a clandestine but nonetheless viable option to earn some extra cash.

Hope is elusive in this world for obvious reasons, and it is hard-won as much as it is ephemeral. The journey towards it, nonetheless, makes for a rewarding arc, and it is animated into being by the female characters, who are relegated to the margins but ultimately succeed in performing their own acts of quiet resistance. All this while Atiq remains our erstwhile protagonist problematic and fully implicit in the regime, but one whose conscience still shades and shapes his actions, and whose inner contradictions reach a dangerous point of reconciliation after he comes face to face with the beautiful, rebellious Zunaira.

As much of a hard watch as it is easy on the eye, The Swallows of Kabul is a deeply worthy exploration of religious fundamentalism and its effects on both the individual psyche and the fabric of society.

The verdict

Rendered in a gorgeous animated style reminiscent of watercolour painting, The Swallows of Kabul belies the inherent brutality of its context with a finely woven lyricism, offering an olive branch of hope for the complex cast of characters whose fates intersect in Taliban-occupied Kabul.

The Swallows of Kabul was screened as part of the Valletta Film Festival on June 18 and 21 at Spazju Kreattiv Cinema at St James Cavalier. It is the winner of the festival’s Audience Award.

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