War, gender and the power of storytelling in 'The Breadwinner'

06 Jun 2018 BY Maria Cabrera

4 mins
The Breadwinner
The Breadwinner

Directed by Nora Twomey - the animator behind Into Film favourites Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells - and co-produced by Angelina Jolie, The Breadwinner follows a young Afghan girl's journey to help her family. It explores complex issues such as war and prejudice towards women and girls from the perspective of a young person, alongside a powerful message on storytelling.

Set in 2001, The Breadwinner sees Parvana, an 11 year-old girl, having to disguise herself as a boy to access food and necessities in Kabul, Afghanistan. Under Taliban rule women are not allowed to leave their homes without a male representative, so when Parvana's father is unjustly sent to prison, her family - her mother, older sister and baby brother - struggle to feed themselves when they run out of provisions. With no other option, Parvana cuts her hair and wears her deceased older brother's clothes and ventures into town. There she meets Shauzia, another girl disguising herself as a boy, who advises Parvana on how to get work with the hope that she will be able to earn enough money to rescue her father from jail.

Based on the best-selling Canadian book, the story derives from accounts by women and girls interviewed by the author Deborah Ellis in Pakistani refugee camps during the 1990s. Ellis and co-screenwriter Anita Doron have adapted the film to take place at the very beginning of the war in Afghanistan and the U.S. invasion, whereas the book was published just before, in 2000. These events underpin the narrative, while the impact of past wars in the country are suggested through desolate lands, empty tanks and military aircrafts passing by in the sky.

What is particularly striking about the film is how we see these severities through the eyes of Parvana, someone who has grown up within the conflict all her life. This gives younger audiences someone they can be inspired by and relate to, regardless how different their own worlds may be. In this way the film echoes other films with young protagonists such as animation Persepolis - about a young girl growing up in revolutionary Iran - and live-action film Wadjda, which sees an independent-minded 10 year-old saving up to buy her first bike in Saudi Arabia when women and girls were not allowed to ride them at the time. The film also has a similar premise to the first film made in Afghanistan after the removal of the Taliban, Osama, about a pre-teen girl also having to pass as a male.

When Parvana successfully disguises herself as a boy we see her joy at having access to freely stroll the local market, while food she is now allowed to purchase glistens. The film certainly highlights the domination of men under the Taliban regime (Parvana is educated and taught how to read strictly in secret by her father and in which women are punished for leaving their homes alone). In an interview with one of our young reporters, director Nora Towmey expressed her hopes for the film to encourage conversations between children and adults "about topics that affect us all, rather than shield children from the world they've inherited from us". Through the audience's connection with Parvana, as well as the adult characters, the film will hopefully spark conversations on how this is not just exclusive or representative of one religion or one part of the world. There are many sexist conventions that can be found to underpin society globally in both subtle and stark ways.

The film suggests that an important platform for these conversations can be storytelling. Parvana is encouraged by her parents to create and tell stories and is told by her father how they can "remain in our hearts, even when all else is gone". This message drives Parvana's journey. A fairy tale she initially tells to entertain her little brother Zaki becomes a source for solace, determination and understanding of the obstacles she has to face. Director Nora Twomey and the Irish production company Cartoon Saloon's colourful animation beautifully captures the tale's child-like imagination, which are at times reminiscent of The Adventures of Prince Achmed. These are seamlessly embedded into the main narrative, blurring folklore and reality in a similar way to Song of the Sea, while applying elements of Afghan illustration and craft, making it culturally specific to the world of the film.

Animation has always been a space in which serious topics can be brought to young audiences and The Breadwinner certainly does this by creating an uplifting narrative that doesn't shy away from depicting brutal truths. The film also champions education, through storytelling, as a key that can unlock self-determination.

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