Director: Nora Twomey
Starring: Saara Chaudry, Soma Bhatia, Noorin Gulamgaus, Kane Mahon, Laara Sadiq
Animation can help make grim events more palatable for audiences (a live-action Grave of the Fireflies, for example, would surely have been unwatchable). In The Breadwinner, director Nora Twomey looks to do the same, by taking a bleak tale and turning it into something rather entrancing.
Produced by Irish studio Cartoon Saloon (creators of Oscar-nominated animations The Book of Kells and Song of the Sea), and loosely adapted by Anita Dorney from Deborah Ellis’ popular novel of the same name, The Breadwinner is set in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the early years of the millennium. Taking centre stage is Parvana (Saraa Chaudry), a young girl living in Kabul. Parvana’s family is impoverished but, aside from her frequent squabbles with her older sister, relatively happy.
Things change for the worse, however, when her father, a former teacher and one-legged veteran of the war against the Soviets, earns the ire of local Taliban goons, suspicious that his teachings contradict their hyper-militant interpretation of Islam. He is hauled off to prison, leaving his wife, two daughters and infant son to fend for themselves – a desperate situation when the Taliban forbid women from even going outside and buying food unaccompanied, let alone working to support themselves.
Animated though it may be, The Breadwinner does not shy away from the grim reality of Afghanistan under the Taliban. An early scene in which Parvana and her mother attempt to venture outside, only to be detained by the religious police, culminates in a genuinely shocking act of violence – though ostensibly a children’s film, The Breadwinner is perhaps not for the youngest of viewers.
Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that makes the flowers grow, not thunder.
Faced with such perils, Parvana comes up with an ingenious solution, disguising herself as a boy so she can move freely about Kabul’s streets and work to feed her family. She quickly discovers that a former classmate of hers, Shauzia (Soma Chhaya) has done the same in an attempt to recapture some of the freedom she has lost and longs for. Together they enjoy their newfound liberty, but the ever-present risk of discovery hangs over them. When the nightly curfew forces Parvana back home, she keeps her family’s spirits up – and her own – with a folk tale about a boy who sets out to confront an evil Elephant King who has stolen his village’s crops; in the world of The Breadwinner, storytelling offers an escape from harsh realities.
Visually, The Breadwinner looks stunning. The scenes set in Kabul are arresting enough, with Parvana’s jade eyes standing out in startling contrast to the crumbling and dusty city streets. Even better are the Elephant King interludes, whose cut-out animation style and marionette figurines call to mind similar sequences in Marjane Satrapi’s superb Persepolis, another tale of a young girl growing up under an oppressive and misogynistic Middle Eastern regime to which The Breadwinner could almost serve as a companion piece.
As beautiful as the Elephant King interludes are, however, their episodic nature badly interrupts the overall flow of the narrative, and the meandering goings-on within the folktale are not as gripping as the real-life travails that befall Parvana. It contributes to a slight sense of aimlessness that, together with some forced symbolism, amount to The Breadwinner‘s chief weaknesses.
Even still, The Breadwinner remains a compelling tale, particularly when it focuses on Parvana herself. And though I am far from being qualified enough to offer a view as to whether its depiction of Afghanistan is an accurate one, a genuine love for the country’s culture and people shines through in every frame, as well as in Jeff and Mychael Danna’s stirring score. As an ode to the power of storytelling and imagination, as a paean to tiny acts of heroism and defiance, The Breadwinner is a demonstration of artistry that few recent animated films can surpass.