In many ways, The Breadwinner is a film for the times we live in.
Animation is often a medium intended for imaginative storytelling and fantastical realms, but realism is the primary focus in The Breadwinner. The thematic content of this animated drama runs contrary to its vivid visuals, which blend bright colors, bold shapes and meticulous details to communicate the story of a young girl living in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
An adult story with universal themes, The Breadwinner begins at a street-side market, where Parvana (Saara Chaudry) sells goods alongside her father, Nurullah (Ali Badshah). Two Taliban soldiers taunt the man and his young daughter, immediately showcasing the conservative customs of a culture where women are intended to only be seen by and with their husbands. One Taliban soldier comments on Parvana’s age, declaring she’s ready to be married. Her father states she’s already been claimed by another. Sadly, one gets the sense that all we are witnessing is a day-to-day norm.
Noticeably furious about their interaction, these Taliban soldiers break into Parvana’s home later that night and haul her father off to jail. No charges are pressed, other than assaulting the pride of men who hold power through intimidation and guns. Parvana is left with only her mother, older sister and baby brother, finding herself left with no other option than to disguise herself as a young boy and become the sole provider for the family. She cuts her hair, changes her clothes and ventures off into a terrifying world that unjustly locked up her father and shuns the women she loves (as well as the woman she’ll grow up to be).
We feel Parvana’s fear as she embarks on this brave and perilous journey, captured through expressive animation that is richly cinematic—not just through drawn details that deftly capture the emotions of Parvana and others, but through shots and camera language that highlight these feelings as well. The Breadwinner also blends a bit of magic into its desolate storyline, via stories that Parvana tells her brother as he’s drifting off to sleep. The tales follow a young boy constantly followed by a red cloud of fear, and how he eventually triumphs against these trepidations. It’s an anecdote that separates itself from the main narrative through a different animation style, while simultaneously conjoining with the themes and lessons that surface from Parvana’s plight. By the end, this juxtaposition achieves something that can only be described as pure beauty.
The Breadwinner is a Canadian, Irish and Luxembourgian production that feels like a cultural necessity. Directed by Irish filmmaker Nora Twomey, who co-directed 2009’s The Secret of Kells, this film surprisingly feels as if it were organically created in the homeland it scrutinizes. It presents Afghanistan with an empathetic eye that never judges the country’s customs, but rather allows us to form these verdicts for ourselves. It’s a film that asks, “What do we do when the world seems more powerful than us, and scares us to death? How do we endure and rise above, conquering terror and injustice?”
In many ways, it’s a film for the times we live in. By its final moments, The Breadwinner places its hand on our shoulder and assures us that everything will be all right. The world is a frightening place, this much is true, and the movie never shies away from this reality. But it also posits that, if we stand face-to-face with our fears and stare them dead in the eye, we can survive. And, perhaps, we can change the world, even just a little.