Two Afghan Girls, One Animation Doc: Interview with the 'Inside Kabul' director Denis Walgenwitz

Inside Kabul animation documentary

15 August 2021 was the day that the Taliban forces overthrew Afghanistan's government and took over Kabul. In March 2023, less than 2 years after the event, the animation documentary 'Inside Kabul' by Caroline Gillet and Denis Walgenwitz had its world premiere at the 2023 Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival -in which it grabbed the audience award (the Fischer audience award to an international film with a duration of up to 50 minutes).

The 30-minute, 2D animation film, is a co-production of France (Estelle Fialon - Les Films du Poisson, Matthieu Liégeois - TCHACK) and Denmark (Producers: Monica Hellström - Ström Picture); its history of development originates from (and is a chronicle of) voices messages between two Afghan girls, Marwa and Raha, to French journalist and documentarian Caroline Gillet. In this series of voice messages (that later became a podcast) the two girls narrated their different paths over the coming months and the increasing uncertainty and oppression they had to face. Raha chose to stay in Kabul, and confront the increasing violence -yet still united with her family. Marwa has instead left the country, only to be found (along with her husband) locked up in a refugee camp in Abu Dhabi -waiting for the results of her asylum requests to Europe or the United States.

Denis Walgenwitz is certainly one of the most fitting persons to turn the text into animated images, having already participated (as assistant director) in Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's 'Persepolis', but also worked as a production assistant in Claude Barras' 'My Life As A Zucchini' and Ari Folman's 'The Congress' and as a line producer in the recent 'Where Is Anne Frank'? (2021).

"As soon as I heard the girls' voices, I thought they were my neighbor's voices", Walgenwitz tells Zippy Frames. The film (like the podcast that preceded it) cuts back and forth between the stories of the girls -the one who left and the other who stayed in Kabul, after the Taliban takeover.

An Asian girl in distress among political upheavals and social injustice is exactly the story of 'Persepolis' - a feature that Walgenwitz worked on. "Both the story and the way of telling it is different", Walgenwitz notes. "But what reminded me of 'Persepolis' is the fact that we were talking about young girls in a core of a very hectic situation regarding war'.

Journalist and documentarian Caroline Gillet had a different approach to the material than the graphic artist Satrapi.

'Caroline came onto the path of the animation work progressively, and with a great energy", Walgenwitz narrates. At the same time, the particulars of animation filmmaking with its lengthy and particularized production pipeline still had to be observed. The collaboration between the two co-directors provided a fresh angle of re-viewing things; and Gillet's introduction into the animation process proved a useful reminder for the animating team as well to go over the basics (which sometimes are lost in the complexities of the project). Or, in Walgenwitz's phrase, "going back to the roots".

Lille-based animation production company Tchack took over the animating task and delivering the final product -a demanding task in terms of time afforded. The whole process started in April 2022, and the final film had to be delivered in October 2022. Previous collaboration with the Tchack producers on behalf of Walgenwitz made it a smooth process ("they afforded us a high -and rare- degree of freedom and confidence in our work").

Time management is one issue, but careful depiction and creative sensibilities are completely different things. "We had to be very efficient and in a way not too efficient as well, more delicate -this part is very easy to break".

The distinction between old-school efficiency and creativity runs the whole project, which had no 'proper' development phase, but arose simply out of the voice recording of Marwa and Raha. "We started with four different storyboarders out of this very intimate voice material; we wanted to stick to the story, yet make it cinematic in a way".

Some false starts occurred, yet the team persevered. "We realized we had to work from the sound here", Walgenwitz admits. Still, the artist Kubra Khademi's drawings and paintings (one for each part of the film) helped the cause; for those vented toward the poetic, not the ordinary and realistic -and this is the direction the team worked toward, under the supervision of Luciano Lepinay as artistic director.

"You make a drawing, and then you put everything away, and you keep only what is needed -and nothing more", Walgenwitz explains.  Wanting to secure the emotional essence rather than the external details, Walgenwitz and his team tried hard to capture the intimacy of the two voices of the girls (whose animated characters needed to be designed as well from the start). "You don't even know how a girl looks -but, at the same time, you are very close to them, because their voice says a lot".

An animating team of young recently graduated women animators further improvised in the 2D computer environment ("we had to let our feelings go"). Background work was made in line with the provise that gradings and transparencies in the final result were essential here. "We were working from what Raha and Marwa were saying. We have no clue about what they are doing. So, it's important to show it not as a dream, but as an invocation or as feelings". While Luciano Lepineay defined the layout work, Camille Dorey performed the actual background line work. Again, the same discrepancy between efficiency ('the perfect line') and relevance was observed. 'Non-accurate' or 'fragile' here became the key terms to describe the work in that area, and once again convey the emotional truth rather than the external (and still unknown) reality.

The 'Inside Kabul' animation film has both a 30-minute version (as a TV special) and a 5x6 episode version. "It's a chronicle, yet it's not mechanically put together", Walgenwitz emphasizes. "It's a kind of mood".

A mood certainly is. Watching the film at the 2023 Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival, you could feel the tension in the two different narrations, coupled with visual choices that highlighted the very elementary and primitive (instead of the detailed and abundantly rich).

The film went on to win the Audience Prize ("it was very important because the film is being done as a chronicle, not as a classical film -so, it's a signal that the audience appreciates that"). The next steps are CPH:DOX and further festivals in a row. But also broadcasting (France TV 5, BBC, Slash, France Inter among them).

Gillet and Walgenwitz remain in touch with both Marwa and Raha, both girls now outside Afghanistan. Marwa (now in France) even came to the animation studio before the end of the production to ask about the animation details, impressed by the veracity of visual happenings without any visual input. So, it seems that both efficacy and poetic creativity found a convergence point after all.

Watch the 'Inside Kabul' trailer:

Inside Kabul' was screened on 8 March 2023 (France 5) and it's available -in its episodic format- in Slash. The 30-minute animation short had its world premiere at Thessaloniki International Documentary Film Festival, and it has been selected for CPH:DOX, with other festivals to follow.

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