Recently, Irish animation company Cartoon Saloon gained universal recognition and acclaim for their film Wolfwalkers. However, years before that feature, they released the equally brilliant and endlessly moving The Breadwinner. This powerful film serves as an ode to empathy and storytelling, transporting viewers to a setting rarely seen in family movies.
The film follows Parvana (Saara Chaudry), an 11-year-old girl living in Taliban-occupied Afghanistan who, after her disabled father (Ali Badshah) is unjustly imprisoned, must find the means to provide for her family. Thanks to the Taliban’s extremist laws that forbid women from working, or even going out in public without their husbands, Parvana is forced to cut her hair and pose as a boy so as to get work and buy food for her mother, older sister, and baby brother. Along the way she meets Shauzia (Soma Chhaya), another young girl doing the same thing, and the two form a bond that enables them to find joy in the midst of their difficult circumstances. Parvana also finds a kindred spirit in Razaq (Kawa Ada), a prison guard who she teaches to read and write. However, as the girls’ ploy becomes more dangerous Parvana’s family must take even more drastic measures to ensure they are provided for, and Parvana must race against time to rescue her father from prison before the family is separated forever.
It’s a film that deals with some really sobering themes including the oppression of women, forced marriage, terrorism, conscription, and more. For those who haven’t seen the film, it may be difficult to imagine how these things can be sensitively portrayed in a way that is both engaging and accessible for families. However, The Breadwinner approaches its storyline with extreme care, with a screenplay that is both brutally honest about life for children in post-1996 Afghanistan, while retaining a sense of empathy and wonder that means that you never lose heart. It never talks down to its intended audience either: children are simply taking on its journey with Parvana and Shauzia and shown characters their age, and with similar hopes and dreams, but in a wildly different setting on their own. It doesn’t shy away from the trauma either but, given that it’s all seen through the relatively innocent lens of the protagonist, the content never feels age-inappropriate.
The uplifting spirit of the film is aided by the interweaving narrative of a story that Parvana tells to her younger brother, about a young man on a quest to retrieve seeds from the evil Elephant King. These tangential moments serve as a means of escapism for our protagonist but also for the viewers, momentarily shifting them into a fantasy realm whose evils seem a lot more distant. The story also parallels the characters’ own journeys—as well as being a beautiful reminder of the tradition of oral storytelling, an important and ancient aspect of many Middle Eastern cultures.
Animation works as the perfect vessel for these two interwoven narratives, with the contrasting styles showing the versatility of 2D animation, and allowing for a greater level of visual detail and intrigue. While it is not as life-like as 3D animation, The Breadwinner demonstrates that this form is certainly not inferior. The main narrative transports us to early 21st-century Kabul, an impressive amount of attention given to the worldbuilding around our characters. The story sequences, meanwhile, pull us right into the pages of a pop-up storybook, the drawings designed to all feel like separate bits of paper moving across the screen. These scenes are incredibly vibrant and colourful, perfectly displaying the contrast between the world in which Parvana lives, and the stories into which she escapes.
The film is also elevated by its beautiful soundtrack, which is both mesmerising and expertly used. Composers Mychael and Jeff Danna use traditional Middle Eastern instruments and styles and, like the animation, the soundtrack utilises the tonal shifts between segments to display the versatility of their art. It moves the story along and it moves you along with it.
You can see director Nora Twomey’s vision in all the creative choices made, and there is a clear high level of care and attention given, particularly in the bid to honour the culture which the film depicts. One especially noteworthy aspect is the representative cast, with all of the actors being either of Middle Eastern or Asian descent—and, it should be noted, all giving amazingly nuanced performances. Chaudry particularly impresses, with a vulnerability in her tone at many points, but an underlying strength consistently present.
The stories of children like Parvanna aren’t told nearly often enough, and The Breadwinner commits to telling its own with so much heart that it wraps you in itself. It is enlightening for both children and adults, depicting a world so far from the one that many of us know, but one that is very much real. It reminds you of the power of storytelling, both within the narrative itself and simply through the nature of its existence. It’s an empathy-making machine. This film is so many things but, above all, I would say that it’s a film worth watching.
“Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that makes the flowers grow, not thunder.”– The Breadwinner
Words by Rehana Nurmahi
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