Éléa Gobbé-Mévellec: The Swallows of Kabul’s Act of Provocation

August 27, 2020
The co-director of the beautiful French animated film was involved precisely because certain sections of society believed that this story could not be told.

Based on the 2006 novel of the same name by Algerian, Yasmina Khadra (actually, the pen name, and wife’s name, of Mohammed Moulessehoul), The Swallows of Kabul is set in 1998, with Afghanistan under Taliban rule. The water colour animated film is a fiction, focusing on 4 characters, and how they are impacted by the religious fundamentalism and war of the time.

Co-directed with Zabou Breitman, Éléa Gobbé-Mévellec was charged with animation on the project.

“I was an animator, and the studio Les Armateurs (The Triplets of Belleville, Ernest & Celestine) knew my work, partly because I have my own feature film project in development. At the same time, they were working with Zabou Breitman to direct The Swallows of Kabul. They were looking for someone to work with her on the animation. They asked me and other people to do some research and present their ideas and to propose some drawings for the film. They chose my proposal and we started working together.”

How did she come up with the animation style for the film? “When I read the script and the novel, it was just natural for me to come up with the style, I just started to draw and was inspired by the story. Also, I had worked on other projects with this technique.

“I have drawn in water colour since I was a kid and I learned the computer style of water colour animation when I was working on Ernest & Celestine. The style is very appropriate because there’s a big light in Kabul, and the light could be the white paper, and we could play with the water colour from the very abstract in the middle of this white, making it appear and disappear.”

The result is truly beautiful, allowing this very challenging story to be told in a resonant way. “It’s a better way to make this film in animation because everyone can project their own story on to this,” Éléa agrees. “Through the distance of animation, everyone can put their own truth on to it. In the abstract water colour pastel tone, we replicate reality, we cannot pretend to make reality. But it’s beautiful and it makes for a great contrast with such a hard story.”

In a very sensitive age when it comes to cultural appropriation, did Éléa ever feel that she was not the person for the job? “I asked myself that question first, but when I read the novel it was not a problem, because the story is not only about Afghanistan but it’s about humans, and the feeling is universal, and the characters are speaking about their feelings. Directors are able to speak about that. And also, the writer of the novel is Algerian and went to Afghanistan and wrote the story. So, it’s wonderful to be able to share this Afghanistan story from Algerian and French people. It’s a better way to do it in animation because we can’t lie about it, we just feel it and express our feelings and share it with everybody.

“When we started to do research about the subject and the story, the strongest message was the way that they were living and the energy for life,” Éléa continues. “When we don’t have war, we are just afraid of it. But people who live under the bombs, they want to live fully every day. We wanted to speak about that particularly in the movie.”

In Islamic religion, animating humans and animals is forbidden. And France, in particular, had major issues around this, tragically exemplified by the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting. The timeline actually fits with Zabou Breitman working on the film, as Éléa confirms. “Zabou wanted to make a provocation by making the main character an artist. This character wants to be free this way.” The French public responded in kind, making The Swallows of Kabul a surprise box office hit.

Was Éléa ever worried about taking on the job? “It’s a way to express myself. It’s not a provocation. If some Islamic people don’t like it, then it’s not my problem, it’s their own.

“On the contrary, I was very proud to do this,” she continues. “I am not afraid. I was confronted with this in the past [she did not go into detail due to our restricted time with her], and this event made me stronger and to be me and to live more in life.”

Having received massive plaudits for her first feature film, Éléa now wants to make more animated films that address issues that are difficult to discuss freely. “I want to make adult content today because it wasn’t done enough in the past. Today we have this possibility because people have started to be ok with animation for adults. There’s a lot still to do to free animation and to use it to express difficult subjects like The Swallows of Kabul, which are not so easy to make in live action. It’s a way to free ourselves, to put imagination into the picture that we can’t make in live action. It’s very important to free people to be able to draw what we have inside. In France, we are forbidden to draw all that we have inside, because some pictures are not accepted by certain sections of society. But I think that we have to free this so that we don’t have horror in real life and society.”

The Swallows of Kabul is screening in cinemas now.

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