For her fifth feature film, nominated for the Un Certain Regard award at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Zabout Breitman offers an animated film version of Yasmina Khadra's novel, The Swallows of Kabul.
.The birds in Kabul under the Taliban regime, male and female, flew freely in the air above the people who were subjected to a regime of rigourously applied Islamic Sharia law. In some cultures, they also symbolise good fortune and hope.
One of the main subjects in the novel - womens' rights, or even in some situations, the right to live - was one factor that led French director Breitman to take on this project.
“Everywhere, and it's really a horrible thing, but the first victim is always women. War or not war. This is a hard and beautiful story, a tragedy, although there's some hope at the end. It was a challenge. We had to get it right and to work really hard on making it all the more sensitive, more sensible,” said Breitman in Cannes.
Breitman started by casting her actors and directing them before the drawing began.
“The actors were the beginning of the process. This is unusual in France. We even filmed them first, wearing the same costumes as in the animation film.”
The actors are recognisable portraits and twice removed from reality. The effect was achieved by graphic artist Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec.
“The graphic style was as simple as possible, minimal with just enough details," explained Gobbé-Mévellec alongside Breitman at the festival for the film's première.
"To make the characters recognizable, it required picking out the one characteristic that would identify them. It was just as complicated to transcribe the movement and select the right movement or gesture to recognize the person behind it.”
Breitman chose Gobbé-Mévellec because of the drawing technique she had mastered on the children's animation film Ernest et Céléstine in 2010 even though as the director said, "it was risky".
“I learned the technique of computer-aided water-colour drawing on Ernest and Céléstine. This technique really suited The Swallows of Kabul.”
The fact that Gobbé-Mévellec has never set foot in Kabul was useful for maintaining the fictional nature of the story in the film, she said.
“It's a fictional story but a reflection of reality, just like drawing is. So when I started think about how to draw this, I thought it was more interesting to create some distance from what you see in the masses of photos taken by reporters in Kabul. Their work helped greatly. Then we had to decide how we would use it to show Kabul in a different way.”