The Best Animated Film of the Year Confronts Islamic Misogyny
Nora Twomey’s ‘The Breadwinner,’ executive-produced by Angelina Jolie, is a harrowing—and spellbinding—exploration of life under Taliban rule.
Animation is traditionally the province of kid’s stuff, and that holds true for The Breadwinner as well—except for the fact that, in the world it depicts, kid’s stuff is anything but childish.
Set in Afghanistan circa 2001, director Nora Twomey’s adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ best-selling novel is a somber, violence-wracked saga of discrimination and hardship, one that’s rooted in—and refuses to shy away from—Islamic misogyny. Far from light and frivolous, it’s a lament for the continuing persecution of women in a land beset by endless conflict, as well as a tribute to those valiant females, young and old alike, who refuse to reside quietly in the shadows. It’s also the best animated film of the year.
As first evidenced by her gorgeous 2009 feature The Secret of Kells (co-directed with Tomm Moore, and produced by Irish studio Cartoon Saloon), Twomey’s output is indebted to the work of Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke), who similarly uses animation as a vehicle for mature dramas about childhood adversity, loss and triumph. Such an approach is evident from The Breadwinner’s opening-credits images of a young silhouetted boy curled up in the center of spiraling demon clouds, as if in a womb fraught with terrible danger. That sight serves as a metaphor for the coming story of a child beset on all sides by evil, and finding the strength to embark on a quest to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. Nonetheless, the director does little to underline the import of this, or any subsequent, thematically-rich flourish; rather, she allows the deeper meaning of her material to flow naturally from the action at hand, which proves as heartrending as it is gorgeous.
Employing a style that’s “hand-drawn” via a computer program known as TVPaint, Twomey turns The Breadwinner (executive-produced by Angelina Jolie) into a brightly-colored, visually expressive tale of woe focused on the ordeal faced by young Parvana (Saara Chaudry), whose big, wide eyes and expressive countenance recall that of Sharbat Gula, the Afghan refugee made famous by National Geographic’s iconic June 1985 cover photo. In a country where the Taliban rules with an iron fist, a small cry from Parvana—while selling goods with her father Nurullah (Ali Badshah) in a Kabul marketplace—is enough to beget ruin, which comes in the form of Nurullah’s former student. Raging at the girl’s supposedly inappropriate behavior, the young angry man embodies the anti-female hatred of the Taliban. And shortly after this initial run-in, he comes for Nurullah, whisking him away to prison and, in the process, leaving his brood to figure out a way to fend for themselves.
That’s an arduous task, given that his clan—Parvana, wife Fattema (Larra Sadiq), oldest daughter Soraya (Shaista Latif), and Parvana’s toddler brother—is primarily female, and in this intolerant land, women aren’t allowed outside without male accompaniment. With food scarce and options even scarcer, Fattema and Parvana venture outside, and suffer the consequences courtesy of another Taliban true-believer who takes great relish in severely beating Fattema with her husband’s cane. As this assault takes place, Parvana desperately attempts to collect the ripped-up shards of her only photo of her father, chasing down the pieces as they blow away—a scene made all the more wrenching by Twomey’s refusal to outright show brutality on screen, instead portraying this nightmare via shots of hands raised in fury and bruised bodies recovering from wounds, as well as with cutaways to telephone lines swaying in the wind.
Having learned a traumatic lesson about the costs of directly challenging the Taliban’s rules, Parvana concocts a devious, desperate scheme. With her sister’s compassionate help, she cuts off her hair and heads out posing as a boy—a Mulan-ish ruse that works to perfection, allowing her to procure food for her family. As she also learns, it’s not as original a ploy as she thought, given that she soon befriends Shauzia (Soma Chhaya), a former classmate perpetrating an identical hoax. Through their subterfuge—as well as Parvana’s unlikely relationship with a man, Razaq (Kawa Ada), who helps her after she reads him a letter about his deceased wife—Parvana discovers not only a practical means of providing for herself and her loved ones, but a way to slyly rebel against a system designed to oppress her.
Parvana finds strength for that rebellion in storytelling, a gift that she learned from her father, and that she practices while trying to free her dad from imprisonment and put food on her family’s table. “Everything changes, Parvana. Stories remind us of that,” Nurullah tells his daughter early on in The Breadwinner. That transformative power is epitomized by Parvana’s own development (into a “boy,” and into a courageous young woman), which occurs as she periodically recounts a fairy tale about a boy (named after Parvana’s deceased brother) who sought three magical items in order to defeat an evil Elephant King and his jaguar demons, who had stolen his clan’s precious seeds. Animated in a two-dimensional, pop-up book style that’s as entrancing as Twomey’s primary aesthetic, and intertwined with Parvana’s real-world plight, this parable speaks to fiction’s ability to embolden, and define—which is also true of The Breadwinner itself, a movie whose own narrative aims to affect change by speaking defiant truth to sexist authority.
Such heady concerns about the relationship between art and real life further bolster the film’s poignancy, which crescendos as war returns to Afghanistan, and Parvana is forced to take drastic measures to rescue Nurullah. For its finale, The Breadwinner splinters into three parallel-running threads, with Parvana finishing her story outside her father’s prison, Razaq struggling to procure Nurullah from his cell, and Fattema confronting a wretched man who plans to take her and her remaining brood far away, thus abandoning Parvana forever. Exposing both the vileness of the country’s misogynistic power structure, and celebrating the perilous bravery required—by both women and men—to combat it, it’s a moving finale which suggests that, in Afghanistan, death is an inescapable facet of both victory and defeat. And, also, that amidst such chaos and madness, there remains hope for a tomorrow better than today.