The Swallows of Kabul is an animated feature about life under the Taliban (based on a book by Yasmina Khadra), and the opening scenes have the suffocating quality of metaphoritis. You’ll know what I mean when you see the “poetic” visual of a bird being shot to the ground, with the shooters in a Jeep hooting and hollering, pumping the air with their machine guns. Here’s another scene meant to make you ache. We see a movie theatre, all lit up and colourful, and three people step out in Western clothes — DISSOLVE TO the same theatre, now looking bombed out, with the same three people now attired in traditional, head-to-toe attire. For a while everything is too literal, a series of “see what happened” placards. A middle-aged man whose wife is ailing is advised to “repudiate her”, and “find a nice, healthy virgin and have kids”. We cannot even imagine what life must have been like under the Taliban, but narrative drama needs to be shaped and sculpted in order to differentiate it from an eye-opening report in a daily. The “poetry” needs form.
But once the place-setting is done with, once the film (directed by Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec) becomes about its people, it gets a lot better. We follow the lives of two couples, one liberal and one conservative. The latter, first. Atiq is that middle-aged man with the ailing wife, Mussarat. He’s a jail warden, and he married Mussarat out of a sense of gratitude, when she saved his life. (She was a nurse.) And the prospect of having to come home to her troubles, in addition to what he witnesses at work, is too much to bear. He says, “How can I deal with others’ misery when I can’t even deal with mine?”
When Atiq’s superior sees that his sleeves are folded above the elbow, he orders him to lower them to the wrist. It’s a reminder that it’s not just the women who were burdened with cruel sartorial rules. But they did have it worse, much worse. Swallows gives us POV shots from inside a burqa. When we see the world through the mesh screen on the veil, it’s like looking out through prison bars. And I don’t recall an earlier film that made us realise how heavy the garment is. When Zunaira is forced to stand barefoot in the sun, for the “sin” of PDA-ing with her boyfriend Mohsen and for wearing white shoes, the front of her burqa dampens with sweat patches, and soon, rivulets of sweat flow down her arms, down her fingers, which are the only visible body parts.
This is a “see what happened” placard, too — but it’s affecting because it comes after we have been introduced to Zunaira and Mohsen, and after we have gotten to care for them. It’s woven into cause-effect drama and not just brandished before us. Mohsen and Zunaira are the other couple, the liberal couple. They are passionate, and they are equals. When they make love, you see Zunaira straddling Mohsen — it’s a rare image in this kind of setting. And later, we discover a nude drawing of Zunaira on the wall (hidden behind a curtain, naturally; this, too, needs to be hidden under a veil). The emotion spills into their lines. After the public, post-PDA humiliation, Zunaira refuses to see Mohsen. “Your face is my only sun,” he pleads. She replies, “No sun can rise at night.”
This “night” has enveloped everyone, even someone as kind and caring as Mohsen. In an early scene, when a woman is stoned in public for the sin of fornication, one of the men who picks up a stone is Mohsen. But he’s different from the other men. We sense his hesitation, and after the woman falls dead, we see his confusion and remorse. So why did he do it? Apparently, he didn’t. Later, he tells Zunaira, “My arm did it.” Swallows is simplistic, predictable and feels like a moral-science fable — the last stretch involves a rescue that’s right out of Ruritanian romance novels like The Prisoner of Zenda and I almost laughed. But I didn’t, because the film’s earnestness is ultimately touching. The beautiful, watercolour-like animation helps. With real actors delivering real emotion, maybe it would all be too much, too familiar. This way, the pain transforms into a different kind of art.l