This is the animated Oscar nominee I have been dying to see since I first heard Nora Twomey was developing it. Like I said in my review of Coco, I bear the Disney animation no ill will; it was doing its own thing and doing it well. But I am sad that there doesn’t seem to be a space for recognising the likes of The Breadwinner at the same time. If you have championed Coco because it tells a story from a community that doesn’t regularly get heard by the mainstream, then you must see The Breadwinner as well. This movie is based on Deborah Ellis’ novel of the same name and tells the story of Parvana, a girl growing up under the Taliban regime in the deep breath just before international forces began to bomb the hell out of Afghanistan.
It’s a series of balancing acts: telling this story for children with no knowledge of the background, but being honest with the fact that this is the story of many living children, whose survival should not be patronised. Trying to leave some hope in the story for an uncertain future, but without glossing over the many many hurdles faced by the women this film follows. For the most part, The Breadwinner walks delicate lines like these with effortlessness, aided by the gorgeous, expressive animation and simple, steady narrative. The ending allows itself one moment of wild, unexplainable optimism with a scene that cuts away and is mysteriously resolved. This is a flight of fancy it has earned though, and through Parvana’s eyes we know that the unseen resolution to that scene could have been bloody and brutal or more generous, and though it’s more likely the former, we are allowed to hope that the latter could still happen.
At the start of the story Parvana’s father, a teacher who lost a leg fighting for the regime, is jailed for speaking inappropriately to the regime. The boy who causes this is an ex-student of his: the kind of angry, scared teenager who resents everything around him and is half-drunk with the power of growing his first moustache and wielding a gun with the big boys. The banality of this boy makes him terrifying: he is a child with the power to enforce rules that suit him perfectly, and to hell with other views. The fear of him stays at the edge of the first half of the movie, ever-present, until he is bundled away to the front line, his face now rigid as he faces the other part of the bargain he made for that rush of power. It was a shock to find pity for this character even in the midst of all he does, but it’s one of the film’s firm strengths that every single character is a person and not a caricature.
Parvana’s life without her father is a dead end: her mother and older sister cannot leave their house, even to buy food. And a twelve year old girl is not to be served either, as she is too close to becoming that which must never be seen in public without an owner. As her mother resolves to write to a cousin in search of a husband for Parvana’s older sister, Parvana decides to cut her hair and take her dead brother’s clothes. The transformation is powerfully revealed in her first trip out: she cringes as she walks through crowds who talk in completely unfamiliar tones of ease, laughing and barely even noticing her presence. She meets a school friend who has disguised herself in the same way, and this connection allows her to make the most of the odd jobs she takes on. Her goal is to make enough money to bribe a guard at her father’s jail, just so she can see him.
The film does not compromise or sentimentalise its view of family. Parvana’s friend Shauzia longs to get away from her male relatives and relishes the freedom she has in her disguise, but Parvana only ever wants to unite her family. Though she bickers with her big sister and grows exasperated with her baby brother, she does so in the same spirit as any middle child growing up in any part of the world. Throughout the film she tells a story to her baby brother about a boy who goes to save his village from a great, spiky elephant. The elephant and its minions have taken the villagers’ seeds, without which there can be no future harvest. In fits and starts, Parvana grows this story — she began by telling her father stories were pointless of course — sometimes with Shauzia’s contribution, until her hero reaches the mountaintop and faces the elephant while American bombs rain down around the jail in which her father is held.
The simplicity of the story’s ending is powerful because it sidesteps any obvious moral about future-proofing, or regaining the seeds for the village. Instead, what is needed is to remember: Parvana reveals what happened to the brother she has been dressing as. It’s senseless, brutal and unfair. She tells us who her parents were before the Taliban. ‘Everything changes. Stories remind us of that.’ Her father’s advice from the outset of the film is bracketed by a quote from Rumi at the close: ‘raise your words, not your voices. It is rain that makes the flowers grow, not thunder.’ It may seem like scant comfort in the setting, but we humans take what we can: Shauzia tells herself stories of the future and the life she’ll work for, while Parvana tells stories that explore the hole at the heart of her family as she struggles to adjust to the loss of so many things.
Cartoon Saloon are the perfect studio for this story. The animation is as gorgeous as ever, moving between stylised paper-cut out figures in Parvana’s stories to the simple lines and muted tones of reality. The characters’ eyes really stayed with me in a way they did not to the same extent in The Song of the Sea or The Secret of Kells. Parvana’s big green eyes (surely inspired by that National Geographic cover) dart about nervously in the silences; her mouth is a sharp little line. It’s less cute than the style used by Cartoon Saloon’s other pieces, as befits it’s older protagonist and rough setting. One day, I hope they’ll be nominated for that Oscar in a year that Disney haven’t released anything…