WORLDS WITHIN WORLDS
The Breadwinner a beautifully told animated film with a grown-up message
In the 16 years since the creation of an Academy Award for best animated picture there have been 64 nominees, more than two-thirds from Pixar (18), Disney (13), and DreamWorks (13).
Almost lost in the glare is a pair from a company called Cartoon Saloon; The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, two of the sweetest animated movies you’ll ever see. And The Breadwinner is the third from that company.
Directed by Ireland’s Nora Twomey and adapted by one Canadian (Anita Doron) from a book by another (Deborah Ellis), The Breadwinner tells the story of 11-year-old Parvana (Saara Chaudry) growing up in Kabul under the rule of the Taliban.
When her father is imprisoned, the rest of the family is caught in a dilemma — without a man, they have no way to earn money; they can’t even go outside. And so Parvana cuts her hair, puts on her older (deceased) brother’s clothes and heads out on her own.
What follows is a fascinating take on the gender politics of the region. As a female, Parvana suffered from a kind of invisibility, ignored and not spoken to except in rebuke. As a young boy, she is differently invisible, able to wander the streets and even pick up odd jobs without anyone looking at her twice.
Her new friend Shauzia (Soma Bhatia), also disguised as a male, shows her the ropes, and for a moment one can imagine an odd comedy in which all the street urchins are actually little girls in boyish camouflage, unbeknownst to the adult populace.
Alas, Taliban-run Afghanistan is hardly the place for a lighthearted comedy — as evidenced by Tina Fey’s so-so Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and Bill Murray’s misfire Rock the Kasbah.
Parvana must still try to get her father out of prison and earn enough to support her family. Fortunately, she’s very good at being a boy, able to read and write (for a fee) for illiterate adults.
Parvana’s story plays out in parallel to a fable that she is telling to her baby brother to keep him quiet at night, and which later she and Shauzia start making up as they go along. Here the animation changes styles, the simple yet realistic hand-drawn images of the Afghan nation giving way to fantastical paper cut-outs for the imagination. Cleverly, this made-up story, about a boy’s encounter with monsters, will eventually dovetail with Parvana’s own quest.
There are numerous tiny details that make this a fully realized world, not least the occasional (and gradually increasing), presence of American fighter jets in the dusty sky, or the smoke from random fires wafting in the air.
This is a grown-up story that can (and should) be seen by the young. Look for The Breadwinner to capture another Oscar nomination for Twomey and Cartoon Saloon, a three-for-three record not even the mighty Disney/Pixar can match.
Nora Twomey tackles gender politics with her animated movie The Breadwinner, which is set in Afghanistan and tells the thoughtful story of a girl who must pretend to be a boy so her family can survive.