An acclaimed French director who has also been acting since age four, Zabou Breitman made her first animated feature with 2020 awards contender The Swallows of Kabul—a film that came about, and was crafted, in an unusual and unexpected way.
Set in a Taliban-occupied Kabul in the summer of 1998, the drama centers on young lovers Mohsen and Zunaira, who work to preserve their relationship amidst a backdrop of perpetual violence and misery, until a senseless act on the part of Mohsen changes their lives forever. Screening in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes, the film is based on a novel by Algerian author Yasmina Khadra, though it wasn’t the book that brought Breitman to the project.
“A young producer had the script from the book made already and thought to make, I think, a real action movie, but then thought it would be better to have an animation film. So, he went to me and asked me to direct it,” Breitman recalls. “I didn’t direct animations before—theater and cinema and TV, but not animation—and I said ‘Oh, yeah, I’d love this challenge, if it’s possible for me to make it my way.’”
Getting the green light to mount the animated film only she could make, the director then had to settle on a visual approach to the story, as the pic made its way to renowned French production company Les Armateurs. “That was quite something, because I had about 20 very different kinds of graphics [to choose from]. Only then, I read the book, and with the process I wanted, I actually didn’t go at all to what was obvious, which was like a more hyperrealistic drawing,” Breitman says. “I went for something more visual, more abstract.”
Impressed by the “wonderful watercolors” of Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec, Breitman had found her co-director, working closely with Gobbé-Mévellec to refine a style that would allow the film to breathe, providing the time and space necessary for a depth of emotion to emerge. “I was in between the book and the drawings, and I wanted everything to be fluid, and to go like a flow, and to go through naturally, so you can’t see the edges, which actually is the case of Eléa’s drawing,” Breitman notes. “It’s more like in a book, where you have still a little bit of space—like, the pages are not totally filled with paint.”
In the development of The Swallows of Kabul, it was also clear to Breitman that she didn’t want to create the conventional 24 frames per second. “I didn’t want something too soft. I guess I wanted something a little bit sharper. So we immediately said, ‘Okay, 18 images a second,’ which is a bit different, and sometimes less images, even,” the director shares. “It makes an acceleration in time, which I really like. It’s a little bit cut, the movements.”
After her visual approach to the material solidified, Breitman realized that she needed to revisit the script and rework certain details of the narrative. “The story of the book is very powerful, of course, and of course I had to let go quite a lot of things. For instance, I had to [combine] three characters to make one, or let go of certain actions to focus on certain things,” she explains. “I mean, I was a bit of a traitor with Yasmina Khadra, who was quite okay with it, I would say. I said, ‘I apologize, but I’m changing little things,’ but he was really very good to me, though I changed even the end.”
As script and picture began to jibe, Breitman only had to make sure that her team was on board with the most essential aspect of her approach as a director—that of putting the actors first, and the animation second. “I wanted the characters to look like the actors. I wanted the movement to be exactly what the actors were doing, and they were even dressed in all the suits they were wearing in the film,” the director says. “They were acting for three days in this sound studio, so we had the sound before. Then, the animators had to work like hell to make everything go together.”
“The other thing is that I asked the actors to be okay with imperfections, which means stuttering, or coughing, or breathing loud, or hesitating. I wanted everything to be animated, so this is what happened,” Breitman adds. “We animated even slight, little mistakes or imperfections, which made the paintings live by themselves.”
In making The Swallows of Kabul, the director was struck by “the power of the women” in the story, she says, “the ability to fight and to be noble. I thought what Yasmina Khadra said about women in this book is so incredible, and strong, and simple, at the same time. It’s there, and you can’t go around it.” Enamored of animated films since she was young, Breitman found the process of directing the pic to come with a fairly large learning curve, leaving the project, nonetheless, inspired to direct within this space again.
The director hopes that the film will inspire viewers to hold onto that “little spark” of humanity that exists everywhere, and at the same time, to ask the right questions about the societies in which they live. For Breitman, the greatest takeaway from the film is that in Afghanistan, drawing a human being is forbidden. In this sense, she says, “by doing an animation film about this story, it’s like the ultimate thing you can do for resistance.”
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