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Film Review: 'The Breadwinner' a beautiful, tragic but hopeful animation

The Breadwinner

The Breadwinner has been nominated for dozens of awards, including a few not normally meant for animated films. It is all well deserved. An Ireland/Canada/Luxembourg collaboration, it joins the talents of eclectic screenwriter Anita Doron, the directing skills of Irish producer/director/writer/animator/special effects manager Nora Twomey, best known for high-quality animated features (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea), and the work of some very innovative animation specialists. The script is based on writer/philanthropist Deborah Ellis’ award-winning children’s novel of the same name.

This deceptively simple animated feature is a beautiful, tragic but hopeful drama told with inventiveness and sensitivity. It makes the best possible use of animation, allowing it to extend the range of the story, moving in and out of reality and overlapping the characters’ experiences with the folk tales that provide comfort and perspective, an emotional outlet, and a way of coping with the horrors of war and oppression.

The central character is a young girl named Parvana (the voice of Saara Chaudry), who lives with her parents, older sister, and baby brother in 2001 Afghanistan, under the control of the Taliban. Her home life is frugal but loving and intellectually rich, but the oppressive presence of the Taliban intrudes more and more on the family. Parvana’s parents were what the new regime considers decadent and Westernised: her father was a teacher, one who taught girls as well as boys; and her mother was a fiction writer. They are therefore considered suspect.

When Parvana’s father is arrested, the family’s life collapses. Since no woman or girl is permitted to work, and may not leave home unless accompanied by a male relative, they are unable to provide for themselves, or even go to the market to buy food. In desperation, Parvana has her hair cut short and puts on the clothing of a boy, left behind by her deceased older brother. Seen as a boy, she is suddenly free to go out in public, enter shops, and even earn money. She meets another girl, Shauzia, disguised as a boy for the same purpose, and they join forces to find odd jobs. Parvana becomes the family’s breadwinner, allowing them to remain in their home and sustain themselves on her meagre income.

While Parvana delights in the unaccustomed freedom her disguise gives her, she is still distraught over her father’s imprisonment, and she tries to find a way to contact him. Her family struggle to remain calm and optimistic. Her mother has always entertained the family with stories, both her own and her retelling of Afghan folk tales, which now continue to unite and encourage them. Parvana finds herself borrowing her mother’s tales and adding to them, both in order to entertain her friend Shauzia, and as a way of expressing her own emotions. She finds herself comforted and empowered by the role of storyteller, and the stories eventually serve other purposes as well.

The animation, produced by Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, is at first glance simple and unsophisticated. The characters are stylized rather than naturalistic, using caricature in the conventional way, the children large-eyed, the adults often towering as if seen from a child’s perspective, the Taliban officials fierce and glowering. However, the simple images are carefully used to express Parvana’s view of her surroundings, and clearly convey her fear and courage, her family’s closeness, the chaotic feeling of the pre-war streets of Kabul. Further, the film uses a second, contrasting style of animation to depict Parvana’s or her mother’s stories. The stories are portrayed in a contrasting, less realistic form of animation, a computer-generated form which resembles paper cutouts, and which uses bright colours and fanciful imagery in contrast to the dull earth tones of the main story, making the tales an escape from Parvana’s grim reality for the viewer, just as storytelling is an escape and a means of empowerment for Parvana herself.

Director Nora Twomey has mentioned the advantage of presenting such a dark and painful story through animation, and having to sometimes overcome a common perception of animated films as not serious or “real” films. Making The Breadwinner as an animated film softens the impact of the very grim storyline, making it palatable for adults who might be repelled by a live-action version, yet without diminishing the story’s weight. Animation also makes the film more accessible to the children who were the story’s intended audience. The young actress who plays Parvana commented in interview that she had read the original Deborah Ellis novel when she was nine, without finding it traumatizing, and had expected that the film would also be available to younger viewers. Twomey has expressed her hope that, especially given the softening effects of animation and the lack of graphic violence, young people would be part of the film’s audience, and possibly even see Parvana as a heroine and role model.

For further viewing…

Another film which uses animation artistically and expressively is Japan’s 2015 biography, Miss Hokusai, adapted from ‘Sarusuberi’ by manga artist Hinako Sugiura. It is based on the life of the great ukiyo-e artist Hokusai and his daughter, O-ei, who is the focus of the story. O-ei is a fine artist in her own right, but is overshadowed by her more famous father, and in a constant struggle to cope with his eccentricities. The film depicts the details of the Edo period beautifully, and portrays O-ei’s life, artistic and personal, with great sensitivity and with respect for the art form the conflicted father and daughter both love.

Afghan writer/director Siddiq Barmak’s 2003 drama, Osama, presents a story similar to that of The Breadwinner, but using live action and a darker perspective, one definitely not suitable for children. In an attempt to function under Taliban restrictions, a young girl disguises herself as a boy. The film is touching and sympathetic toward the female characters living severely curtailed lives under the Taliban. It does not, however, gloss over the cruelty and violence the lead character encounters, and offers nothing approaching a hopeful or happy ending.