The Breadwinner is a weighty story but a feast for the senses, says MacDara Conroy
After years of cynical, pandering rubbish cooked up for commercial interests over critical acclaim, Irish cinema has been giving it socks as of late — and animation has been a particularly consistent strand. Since the 2001 Oscar nomination for Brown Bag Films’ Give Up Yer Aul Sins, the gauntlet was picked up by Kilkenny-based studio Cartoon Saloon, whose previous features The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea spun Irish folklore into colourful, enchanting stories on a critical par with the famed Studio Ghibli’s fare.
However, Cartoon Saloon’s latest film, The Breadwinner, is something different, more along the lines of the short segment it produced for the 2014 adaptation of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. The setting is central Asia, a long way from Ireland; the voice cast are for the most part ethnic unknowns. But the story is universal, even if it’s not the one you might expect.
Based on the children’s book by Canadian author Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner follows the exploits of Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry), an 11-year-old girl forced to become the titular earner for her family after her father’s imprisonment by changing her appearance to navigate a man’s world.
On the face of it, The Breadwinner is Mulan transplanted to Afghanistan under the cosh of the Taliban. But that’s really where comparisons end, as this film wants to tell a story that’s bigger, and more multifaceted, than merely ‘girl poses as boy to subvert the patriarchy’. For one, it’s established early on that Parvana is not the only girl in Kabul with the bright idea of cutting her hair and changing her clothes to be one of the boys, and assume the veritable superpower of free movement in an environment that’s severely restricted for girls and women.
The Breadwinner’s Kabul is a chaotic place, where agency has been stripped of its populace and life is something that merely happens to them. It’s a world where teachers are reduced to street pedlars, translating letter for coins; where writers are hidden at home or behind the shroud of a burka, faceless. It’s a life at the mercy of the Taliban’s roving gangs of thuggish enforcers, themselves often no more than puffed-up boys playing as macho men, or of the airstrikes from a unnamed foreign power that destroy whether lies below indiscriminately — the bad guys and their victims alike.
But it’s also a place where Parvana and her friend Shauzia (Soma Bhatia) can find some calm amid the tumult, whether sneaking into a confectioner’s store room to behold the jewel-like sweets, or devising schemes to make money for a bribe so Parvana can see her father again. Hope is not lost, even in the face of such a cold, brutal reality.
The film makes no bones about its depiction of the emotional trauma of war, and is violent at times, even if mostly implied or off screen. It’s a film for children, but not for kids. That goes for its overall themes also; its deeper resonance is through metaphor, particularly via the story within the story, a made-up folk tale that Parvana relates to her young nephew that reveals profound truths about a grief that continues to wound her family.
It’s also not a film with any easy answers. Breakthroughs are made, but resolution is just out of reach. That might be frustrating to some, but it’s a brave choice to put out a story that refuses to adhere to storybook conventions. And a bold decision, too, by director Nora Twomey and producer Angelina Jolie to diverge slightly from the source material.
An animated film would be nothing without its visuals, and in that regard The Breadwinner is a veritable feast for the senses. (Disclosure: an old school friend of mine worked on the film.) Dusty browns and greys of the realistic street scenes — a nod to the anime influence — give way to the riot of colour that bursts from Parvana’s imagination, as the film deftly weaves the harsh facts of life with joyful memories of the past and longings for a better future.
Parvana herself, with her haunting blue eyes, is surely inspired by that famous National Geographic photograph of a young Afghan refugee. But her character is no apparition. Despite being half a world away and cultures apart, it’s remarkably easy to empathise with her, and get carried away by her adventures. Don’t let the weighty subject matter put you off.
The Breadwinner opened at Dublin’s Light House Cinema (with screenings as Gaeilge) and IFI, Pálás in Galway, Queen’s Film Theatre in Belfast and cinemas nationwide on Friday May 25th