In recent years, the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has given us the great films Secret of the Kells and Song of the Sea, and they are following up those efforts with the wonderful The Breadwinner. Based on the young adult novel of the same name by author Deborah Ellis, the film tells the story of a young Afghani girl, Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry), as she disguises her identity to provide for her family after her father is imprisoned by the Taliban.
For a film seeped in challenging history and politics, The Breadwinner manages to weave a beautiful story of hope, family, and dignity for a people that have long been suffering. Parvana learns about the history of Afghanistan from her father, a teacher, who encourages Parvana in her studies and stresses the importance of the country’s storytelling tradition. Amidst all the havoc and fear the reigning Taliban rulers have inflicted on Afghanistan, Parvana finds the stories frivolous. What good could her father’s stories do when her future and the future of her country looks so bleak?
It isn’t until her father is imprisoned, and she takes on the identity of a young boy that she realizes the power of her father’s stories. It is then that she finds a voice of her own with which to share the story of her people. I want to stress here that it isn’t her new male identity that gives her the ability to use her words. She only ever tells the saga of a boy named Sulayman when she is Parvana, with her family to keep their spirits up, and with her friend Shauzia, who also chooses a male identity so she can move about freely in public. The saga is told in pieces throughout the film, using a separate animation style from the main narrative that resembles classic children’s story paper cut outs. The visuals during these sequences are striking, and meant to be symbolic of both Parvana’s journey and that of Afghanistan.
In addition to her words, Parvana experiences new freedoms as a boy such as walking around the market, purchasing food for her family, and working to make money in an attempt to bribe her father’s way out of prison. It is through this identity that Parvana is able to exercise the confidence, strength, and bravery she has always possessed but is unable to show otherwise. The film is careful to portray Parvana’s male identity as a practical necessity and not the genesis of these innate traits. Director Nora Twomey and screenwriter Anita Doron make certain to illustrate differing depictions of strength in their female characters, from Parvana to her mother Fattema (who has probably the most badass moment in the entire film), and her sister Soraya.
I have always been a fan of the whimsy and magic in Cartoon Saloon’s films and it’s great to see them produce a film like The Breadwinner which remains true to their unique style but takes their storytelling to new heights. Above all, the film is about the power of raising one’s words to quell those who would harm us, instead of raised voices full of anger and hate. Throughout the film, Taliban soldiers yell at the citizens of Kabul. They yell at Parvana for being out in public, her mother for continuing to speak as she holds up a picture of her missing husband, and her father for bringing his daughter with him to the market. As is witnessed in the film’s beautiful climax, when you hear someone’s story, their name, it’s harder to visualize them as anything less than a human being with experiences and a spirit. The Breadwinner stresses the power of words, and perhaps more importantly, the power of listening to those words.
The Breadwinner opens today at the Ritz Bourse theater in Philadelphia.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.