The Breadwinner (2017) Review
Director: Nora Twomey
Screenplay: Anita Doron, Deborah Ellis
Starring: Saara Chaudry, Soma Chhaya, Noorin Gulamgaus, Laara Sadiq, Ali Badshah, Shaista Latif, Kawa Ada
With every raved review of the latest animated blockbuster, I have cause to wonder if I’ve already died on the inside.
I won’t lie… the likes of Moana and the Despicable Me movies are enjoyable enough, but they fail to rouse the same feelings of awe and wonderment the Disney movies of my childhood did. I’ve considered it Game Over – I am no longer the target demographic. But, every so often, films like The Breadwinner rise up and bowl over audiences of all ages, races and creeds, melting off faces (which at least helps to hide the tears). It makes you realise the major animation studios have been playing a merry little game of run around for all these years, churning out easy pop culture references while depriving us of the true stories of mankind.
The Breadwinner, a nominee for Best Animated Feature Film at this year’s Academy Awards, is the 2nd feature length directorial effort from Nora Twomey, who was part of the arts team at Kilkenny responsible for fellow Oscar Nominee Song of the Sea – a film I thought whimsically covered a trying subject matter. Her 2017/18 effort follows the life of Parvana, a young girl living in Taliban ruled Afghanistan, who disguises herself as a boy to save her family from imminent starvation after her father is wrongfully arrested. Like the exquisite Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner is a showcase of gripping and enchanting storytelling, rich characterisation and exquisite animation, but it surpasses its Celtic predecessor with its raw emotion the likes of which I have never experienced in a movie before. It was as if the film itself reached over to my cinema seat and gave my heart a good squeeze for an hour and a half.
The superb plot, characterisation, voice-acting and animation of The Breadwinner is how it achieves its incredible poignancy, but its devastating effect on its audiences is by the specific use of these elements to deliver a frank and brutally honest depiction of Afghanistan (post the Soviet-Afghan conflict) and the terrible repercussions by the lives of innocent people. A carefully crafted concoction of direction, art and voice-acting squeezes heartbreak, wrath, terror and joy from every frame.
To sum up the emotional power of this movie would be my admission that my concluding thought as I left the cinema was that I felt truly ashamed to be a Westerner. The film makes no illusions to the fact that Afghanistan has been subject to terrible war and violence to exploit the riches and the trade of the land. It does not butter up the facts, making it plain that the establishment of supposed stability at the end of the Soviet-Afghan war directly resulted in the unbelievably cruel Taliban regime. For almost the entire first half of the film, I found myself quaking with anger – I was completely consumed by disgust at the medieval and ignorant attitudes towards women harboured by the Taliban. In those moments, I felt convinced that there was no greater evil than the misogyny that demands little girls to be covered up so that adult men wouldn’t be “tempted”. Sitting there as a woman who had visited the cinema to see this movie alone, using my own money, I wanted to jump into the screen myself and rain my fists down upon all offenders. How dare men think they can deprive us of our liberation? In the uncomfortable yet unblinking presentation of the Taliban’s sexism, my mind whirred away with furious mantras of “beat a woman will you? Come and beat me if you’re hard enough!”. This rage was washed away by a more painful sorrow, heralded by the ominous roar of US Fighter Jets as America’s invasion of the country loomed. The eve of this war coincides with the movie’s climax and as my eyes welled up over the fate of Parvana and her family, I felt absolute shame. The film in a way was cruel, pointing at the future beyond the ending of the film knowing that its audiences would be fully aware of the suffering to come. I saw futures diverge, liberated; I had the opportunities to become educated and independent whilst countless girls in the Middle East would be robbed of everything by my own country’s war on terrorism. Shame doesn’t cover it.
In its presentation of the unforgivable reality of the innocent citizens of 21st century Afghanistan, The Breadwinner equally fills up the audiences with heart-bursting elation at the depiction of the indomitable human spirit. Much of the film’s magic is attributed to the incredibly tangible and real characterisations that allow you to find yourself within the midst of the movie. Like Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner boasts a hilarious and painfully accurate portrayal of family life and childhood sensibilities. Parvana may be the hero, but she can still be mean to her older sister and her annoying little brother, whilst Soraya pontificates like any self-respecting older sister. Amongst the sibling pettiness and rivalry, the oh-so recognisable softness that can only be found amongst brothers and sisters united in a cause bled through. This accuracy and realism paid for itself when I saw myself as Soraya onscreen, shouting at my sister to stop upsetting my mother, knowing she was weary with soul-crushing troubles. I cannot articulate the feeling of having accepted that animated movies are no longer made for me to then see myself so vividly in a character.
This is true story-telling, when everyone is able to see their own souls reflected back at them.
The evident realism of the exceptional writing would have had little impact without the amazing vocal talent however, which if you take a minute to contemplate, is absolutely staggering as the heavy plot is carried largely by a young cast, some of whom were from Afghanistan. Saara Chaudry boasts an effortless transformation as a sulky and timid oppressed girl to a fiercely headstrong individual who has tasted freedom and will use it to save the lives of those she loves. You find yourself celebrating with Parvana as she manages to buy some rice from a vendor in many a moment brought to life by Chaudry’s powerful voice acting, and the power of this victory in turn acts as a sharp reminder to how desperate Parvana’s existence was when society saw her as, simply, a girl.
Another stand-out performance was that of Noorin Gulamgaus as Idrees. I am still stunned at how a performer so young can manage to play a character so thoroughly unlikable and so filled with hate (he was one of the main targets to feel the fury of my fists), yet still be nuanced enough – within performance and writing – that I managed to feel pity for a character so detestable. Don’t be mistaken, Idrees’ attitudes towards women, particularly Parvana, is abhorrent, but within his first lines I found myself grounded within a very strong realisation – my mind instantly went to ISIS. A young man in a world of turmoil and destruction without purpose, such an easy target for seduction. Idrees was after all as much of a victim, and that is testimony to Gulamgaus’ talent to convince the audience of this.
One of the greatest wonders of the The Breadwinner was its ability to maintain an emotional tension for 90 minutes, and this was helped along by one of Kilkenny animations’ strengths: the story within a story. Parvana throughout the film, to a multitude of different listeners, narrates the tale of a young boy on a quest to save his village from certain starvation by rescuing their bag of seeds from a terrible, fiery, spiky elephant. It is this story that showcases the beauty and the unique animation of the movie; that’s not to say the art throughout the rest of the film is not stunning, but watching the sepia of Afghanistan make way for the jewelled colours of a child’s imagination is exquisite. As the film transitions into the story, traditional 2D animation makes way for a whimsical paper-art style, encapsulating the way a child’s mind flows when enchanted by good yarn. It manages to be hypnotic whilst also an altogether terrifying force.
As Parvana’s personal story comes to a lull, the tale of the Elephant keeps us on the edge of our seats, for unlike many recent blockbuster movies, it has terrifying stakes and a consuming dread as the boy is stalked by an unseen force. Its purpose transforms from keeping The Breadwinner’s tension to bringing the whole movie to a earth-shattering crescendo as it parallels the movie’s climax. Even more incredible, the story matches the journey of the audience with the terrible elephant, first consumed by a burning rage to then be brought a standstill over the horrific injustice suffered by innocent children. Out sharpness is washed away to be replaced with a sadness, a tenderness and a desire for atonement.
“Raise your words, not your voice, it is rain that makes the flowers grow, not thunder.”
Just as Parvana is taught by the tales of her father, The Breadwinner shows us that the power of stories can still transform lives within the cruellest realities, especially those that herald the truth, which is something that no regime or government can ever take away. It is an impossibility for anyone to leave this film without feeling profoundly affected by it; it truly was something very special.