Everyone is fallible. Jesus taught us in the Bible: “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her”. The Swallows of Kabul does not allude to Christianism. After all, this is Afghanistan under the control of Muslim fundamentalists. Yet it does seem to take Jesus’s teaching quite literally. Mohsen (voiced by French heartthrob Swann Arlaud) reluctantly throws a rock at a female being stoned to death at a public square in the Afghani capital, carrying the capital punishment for an undisclosed offence. He isn’t alone. An angry crowd of men, women and even children throw stones at the woman until she fatally collapses. “She lived in disgrace, so she shall also die in disgrace”, a government official announces. Later, Mohsen comes to regret his action.
Set in 1998, The Swallows of Kabul rescues fragments of humanity and kindness in the most unlikely places. Despite having thrown a stone, Mohsen is not a monster. He is profoundly in love with his wife Zunaira (Rita Hanrot), and capable of selfless actions in name of his beloved spouse. Meanwhile, prison ward Atiq (Simon Abkarian) is struggling to cope with his wife’s terminal illness. He’s advised to ditch her in favour of a young and healthy female who could bear his children. He doesn’t know what to do. He’s not a monster, either.
Based on the eponymous novel by Libyan writer Yasmina Khadra and directed by two females, The Swallows of Kabul is a very feminine endeavour in its gentle candour and colourful sensibility. Violence is neither fetishised nor sanitised. The blood is seen as it soaks the burka, yet the fatal wounds are never graphically depicted. The directors portray a regime that relentless and sadistically castigates females. Women are less worthy than men.
Yet men are not portrayed as beasts. Mohsen and Atiq are both struggling to reconcile their humanity with the regime’s perverse doctrine. Until one day tragedy strikes and their paths cross. Atiq’s humanity is rekindled by a single tear in his eye, his wife notes. The movie wraps up with the ultimate sacrifice, a testament that altruism can survive even under the most arid and inhospitable conditions.
Despite being set in Afghanistan, The Swallows of Kabul is a very French film. It’s entirely spoken in French (Khadra’s original novel was also written in French). At times, the animated images look like a Belle Époque painting, the glam and glitz of Paris replaced by the derelict buildings of war-torn Afghanistan. A welcome addition to the small pool of animated war movies made by women, which includes the also French Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi/ Vincent Paronnaud, 2007) and the Irish-American The Breadwinner (Nora Twomey, 2018). Worth a watch.
The Swallows of Kabul premiered in Cannes, when this review was originally written. It shows in the Annecy Festival in June.