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.

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