No animated movie this year will be as timely and topical as THE BREADWINNER, a passionate feminist epic from SECRET OF KELLS co-director Nora Twohey and her colleagues at Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon.
Based on the acclaimed YA novel by Deborah Ellis, this harrowing but lyrical coming of age story is set in the restrictive and misogynist world of Taliban-era Afghanistan. Parvana (expertly voiced by child actress Saara Chaudry) is a prepubescent Afghan girl whose father is taken off to prison for accidentally shaming a young Taliban thug. Parvana, her mother, her older sister and her baby brother face starvation, because the Taliban refuses to allow unaccompanied females to even walk to the market, let alone work or earn, unless a grown male relative accompanies them.
In desperation, Parvana dons the clothes of her deceased brother and masquerades as a boy, suddenly gaining entry into a hidden world of patriarchal dominance where she’s free to earn, walk and witness. Danger is everywhere, but it’s a tribute to Twohey’s direction and the fine if streamlined script Anita Doron has fashioned from the source novel that Parvana’s journey and her responses to it feel less like a political thriller than a child’s life, lived in and true.
THE BREADWINNER’s most visually ravishing sequences are reserved for an improvised folktale Parvana and her family tell each other about a brave boy and his adventures in the land of the “Elephant King.” These sequences are very beautiful to look at, rendered in a lush and convincing CG mimicry of cut-out animation contrasted purposefully against the grittier style of Parvana’s world.
Intercut with Parvana’s story, the Elephant King saga at first seems prettily disruptive – a safety valve to take the edge off some disturbing content. But as Parvana’s tale gradually unspools, it’s revealed as a kind of invented mythos created to explore the loss of a beloved brother. A paean to storytelling itself is characteristic of Cartoon Saloon; both KELLS and SONG OF THE SEA are steeped in Irish folk traditions. Twohey’s saying the creative imagination provides solace and strength even in a world of total darkness. Her point resonates both in context and as a personal statement of purpose.
Oddly, the central plot device in THE BREADWINNER is reminiscent of the classic Disney princess film MULAN, which also used a gender-bending and cross dressing conceit for a parable of female empowerment. But where MULAN essentially presented female liberation in terms of the hyped up action tropes Disney/Pixar films revel in, THE BREADWINNER has real stakes, and ultimately makes a stronger point about the perverse anti-feminism so many women live under.
In the world of THE BREADWINNER, the oppression of women is conventional, mundane, an excepted organizing principal in a recognizable social system. Parvana isn’t called upon to lead an army into battle, but simply to survive with her innocence and dignity intact.
It would be callow and idiotic to argue that women in Western democracies suffer anything remotely resembling the grim oppression explored in this film. But Parvana’s journey still feels applicable in a wider sense in this era of the Weinstein effect. Thousands of supposedly liberated women from across Europe and America responded to the #MeToo campaign by shouting they too live in a world of fear, sexist bigotry and personal risk. Who would dare to say gender equality is anywhere an achieved goal?
Parvana’s struggles to survive against a repressive patriarchal society might be impossible to sit through as live action – realism would make the dangers Parvana and her family suffer almost too much to bear. But animation has always had a kind of “once upon a time” quality. Parvana’s story becomes a universal fable – not only about the personal journey of an Afghan girl but also about the strength, courage and perseverance of women everywhere.
Twohey’s cartoon is not only a window on a distant place but also a parable about the brutality and unthinking misogyny women suffer everywhere. THE BREADWINNER is a shaken fist in a time of righteous wrath.