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The Breadwinner (2017) animation directed by Nora Twomey

Afghanistan under Taliban control

This animated adaptation of Deborah Ellis’s novel for children focuses on Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry), a young Afghan girl who works alongside her father Nurullah (voiced by Ali Badshah) in a market square in the Taliban-controlled city of Kabul. The pair keep themselves occupied by telling each other stories. While Nurullah regales her with tales of the history of the Silk Road and how it has repeatedly drawn invaders to their land, Parvana makes up tales of fantasy and wonder.

According to the Taliban’s radical interpretation of Islam, women aren’t permitted to do work. However, Nurullah has little choice since he needs someone to support him due to him losing a leg in battle - and his older son, Sulayman, is no longer with them. Nonetheless, this doesn’t prevent an aggressive young Taliban member named Idrees (voiced by Noorin Gulamgaus) from asserting his power by having him arrested and taken to a desert prison. His absence means that Parvana and the rest of her family - older sister Soraya (Shaista Latif), mother Fattema (Laara Sadiq) and baby brother Zaki - have to fend for themselves in a land where women aren’t permitted to draw attention to themselves by doing something as outrageous as going shopping without being accompanied by a man.

Parvana decides to have her hair cut and to dress in Sulayman’s clothes in order to disguise herself as a boy procure the food and water that her family needs. She also befriends another young girl named Shauzia (Soma Chhaya) who has been doing the same for a long time. What she wants most, however, is to see her father again. With the help of Shauzia and Razaq (Kawa Ada) - an illiterate Taliban member who feels indebted to her after she reads him a letter informing him of his wife’s death - she tries to scrape together enough money to bribe her way past the prison guards.

The film also has a story-within-a-story threaded through the narrative involving an ongoing fairytale which Parvana narrates to both Zaki and Shauzia. It focuses on a heroic boy who goes on a quest to defeat the Elephant King who has attacked their village.

Watch a trailer:

An animated window to a troubled corner of the world

This beautiful, cel-shaded animated tale is one of stark and unusual contrasts. It’s both heartbreaking and uplifting. It’s both funny and sad. It’s both grimly realist and resolutely escapist. It’s tainted with despair and yet offers a chink of hope. Most importantly, it’s a window into a part of the world that most of the West views with blank-eyed apathy at best - unless it is viewed as a source of Islamic terrorism, that is.

The Breadwinner restores both a sense of wonder and lament at this blighted corner of our planet. There are two main antagonists presented here: that of the brutally repressive and misogynist Taliban regime, and that of the invading US forces. However, they are depicted in two entirely different ways. It’s the former who are the most omnipresent here: a group of brutally masculine thugs who are most extreme at their youngest and most impressionable - as depicted through the sadistically bullying zealousness of the adolescent Idrees. The latter is a vague, nameless and faceless - yet no less tangible - threat, a veritable force of nature seen and heard looming in the sky via the terrifying screech of jet fighters overhead.

The Breadwinner (2017)

The animation and artistic style is notable for its attention to detail and subtle poignancy. The atmosphere of the bustling marketplace and shady alleys of Kabul is brought to rich life, as is the oppressive monolithic greyness of the prison where Nurullah is held. Adult characters are regularly framed with a looming oppressiveness, towering over Parvana either from her POV looking upwards at them, or as shadows cast over her. On the other hand, the devastating moment where this young girl reads the fateful letter to Razaq keeps focus on the apple which the latter delicately peels - a motion which subtly reveals the deep vulnerability which lies beneath his intimidating patriarchal masculinity.

The most prominent details of all, however, are the minutiae of family life in a country where placing the basics of food and water on the table are a day-to-day challenge without a male “breadwinner”. A simple meal of rice and raisins becomes a beautiful daily family ritual. The journey to get water from the local well becomes an intimidating gauntlet of young boys waiting to pounce on Parvana. The ongoing relationship between Fattema, Soraya and Parvana is one marked by claustrophobic tension, internalised repression and pure unconditional love all wrapped together.

While the central tale is almost overwhelmingly sad, Parvana’s storytelling sections add the much-needed aforementioned aspects of escapism and hope to the proceedings. They are handled in a 2D collage animation style which resembles similar scenes in A Monster Calls (2016) by way of Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926). They are not without a slight element of visual humour in the way in which they have an exaggerated sense of thrown-together simplicity which reflects Parvana’s unabashed on-the-fly tale-spinning.

The whole film amounts to a beautiful hymn to a child’s ingenuity and imagination, even amongst the world’s most brutally adverse circumstances. The Breadwinner is truly a must-see.

Runtime: 90 mins

Dir: Nora Twomey

Script: Anita Doron, based on a book by Deborah Ellis

Voices: Saara Chaudry, Soma Chhaya, Noorin Gulamgaus, Laara Sadiq, Ali Badshah, Shaista Latif, Kawa Ada

Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆

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