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The Swallows of Kabul’s’ Zabou Breitman, Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec On Tackling Oppression With Art

CANNES  —  “The Swallows of Kabul” marks a new step forward for co-directors Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec. A leading figure of French film and theatre, Breitman had never worked in animation before, so she teamed with up-and-coming talent Gobbé-Mévellec to bring this bittersweet tale of Taliban oppression and artistic resistance to life. Following its Un Certain Regard premiere, the film will play Annecy next month.

When the producers bought the rights to the source text, they originally planned to develop the project for live action. What caused that idea to change

Zabou Breitman:  There were practical reasons, in terms of locations and feasibility, but it also made sense for this specific narrative. It’s a very tough story, really close to tragedy, and animation could not only make the narrative more digestible, it could allow us to go further and be more expressive. You can express a lot with animation, while also leaving plenty for the viewers to fill in with their own imagination, so in that way it’s quite close to literature.

You still brought a few tricks from the live action world. Could you speak about the unique method in which you made this film?

Breitman: I found recent animated films too fixed to these codes where the figures both moved and spoke with an exaggerated timing, and it felt unnatural. For this film, rather than starting with an animatic and then bringing in the actors to record the dialogue, we first sought to work out a rhythm. We shot the whole script with the actors in studio and in costume. When the scene called for a burka, we had them put one on. When a character was eating pistachios, so was the actor.

It created a hyper-realistic intimacy that you could hear in their voices. While we were far from motion capture, we also used the film performances to guide the animation, and it was instructive in showing how valuable minimalism and stillness could be. Plus, we were able to work the actors’ improvisations into the final film, and when we paired those moments with Eléa’s painted, watercolor visuals, we achieved an incredible level of intimacy.

How did you land on that watercolor style?

Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec:  I think that any specific graphic approach needs to stem from the particulars of a project. The style needs to have some sort of meaning, and it needs to amplify the larger themes and emotions of the film. While figuring out this film, I looked at a lot of archival images and watched a lot of documentaries about Kabul, and I was really struck by the various graphic elements that were already there. The light was incredible, and it exposed such vivid colors. I was taken by these saturated shades and contrasting lines, all overexposed in sunlight. The images had their own voice, so I didn’t need to add anything more. The job was to bring those images to life, and I thought a kind of impressionist, watercolor style would be the best way to deliver a look that was calm, contemplative and strong.

The Swallows of Kabul
CREDIT: Les Armateurs

The characters have eyes that are larger than life, with pupils that are dark pools of black. It creates a startling effect. What led you to that design choice?

Gobbé-Mévellec: The eyes were a kind of exaggerated proportion that underscores the fact that we’re in something constructed and not quite real. You can play with scales like that to create a bit of distance from full verisimilitude, and we wanted to create as much distance as possible. The idea was to explore the emotional and sensorial aspects of this story without burying them under too much heavy drama. We want to give viewers the time and space to develop their own emotional responses, and to let the impressionist paintings have their effect. Even though the characters closely resemble the actors who played them, we made the designs just unreal enough in order to remind viewers that these images are constructed. Because as Zabou and I like to say, the further you step back, the more you’re able to see.

In another memorable, fascinating image, you compose the frame from behind a Burka, creating a very original POV-shot. Where did that idea come from?

Breitman: When we started working on the film, we discovered this music video that came from Germany in around 2001 [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_Y-sw89qTY] In it, three young Afghani women in full body burkas play electro, and sing this song, which we actually hear in the movie, called Burka Blue. I mean, talk about resistance! In the video, they film themselves in their living rooms and around Kabul, shooting from behind their chadarees. That image just blew us away. They’re young and having a good time, and risking death in order to do so. We instantly knew we had to honor them, because that visual said everything.

The Taliban not only banned music, they also banned painting and representation of the human figure. That’s another reason we wanted to tell this story with animation. It created an additional layer of resistance, and all the more so because we made the character of Zuneira a painter.

Eléa, this is your feature debut. What did you learn from the experience?

Gobbé-Mévellec: Time is the biggest element to consider when beginning a feature. The project has existed for almost six and half years. First we did a short that was kind of a teaser, then we spent two years looking for financing, and then actual took about three years nonstop. The whole process requires a lot of stamina; it’s a marathon that can last years, so you need ease into an effective working rhythm and give yourself the ability to step back and appraise what you’ve done. The real danger is in losing sight of the main idea of the film. That’s why it was great to work with Zabou, who followed a different working rhythm and was always able to come in and answer those questions.

The Swallows of Kabul
CREDIT: Les Armateurs

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