In ‘The Breadwinner’, we see Afghanistan during a time of heightened tension and conflict through the eyes of a young child. Although it has a 12A certificate, it deals with multiple difficult themes including violence, oppression, loss and suffering. The film, an international co-production between Canada, Ireland and Luxembourg, has a unique style which packs quite the punch and demonstrates that animation is sometimes best placed to tackle tough subject matter.
In the film, we follow Parvana and her family in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the days prior to the US invasion in 2002. In the first few moments, we quickly learn that a household’s economic freedom is largely dependent on men. Women can’t buy food or even walk the streets for long unless accompanied by a male family member. Order is blindly enforced by young male officers through the use of verbal abuse and physical violence.
In a cruel twist of events, Parvana’s father, the only adult male in Parvana’s family, is sent to prison for sharing stories and educating his female family members. As a result, we see the young Parvana face a set of difficult circumstances with undeterred bravery in order to find her father and support her family, thus becoming the household’s unconventional ‘Breadwinner’.
Through the use of 2D animation, the film fully immerses you in Parvana’s reality; from the scenes in the busy market square to the poverty-stricken setting in the family home, it is all captured with impressive detail. Beautifully interweaved are also these moments of mythic story-telling, as we learn, stories are a means to remember history, escape from reality but also reconcile with one’s past. An advantage of using the animated medium is the way it delivers some of the sharp-edged plot lines in the film. For example, in one scene we experience the brutal consequence for the mother when she challenges the authorities. The violence takes place off-screen, but its aftermath is potent as the visual tone darkens and we see glimpses of the extent to which the mother has been injured. Although we don’t see the details of the violence, it doesn’t make it much easier to digest.
The film is based on the novel by Deborah Ellis and although its plot has drawn some criticism, I would say that its strength is the way that it gives an insight into a land not often represented on screen. Through Parvana’s lens you learn of the culture in Afghanistan, the stories of some of its citizens and their values. Despite the negative aspects which it does not shy away from, it ultimately displays pride in its history and optimism for the future.
Similar to my recent review of The Prince of Egypt, in this film our protagonist displays a large degree of bravery. Only here our protagonist is a heroine and a mere eleven years old. As a girl with a head scarf in public, Parvana is constantly cowering from strangers, in fear that she’ll be in trouble with the authorities. But with the simple change of putting on boys’ clothes and chopping off her hair, suddenly she is welcomed in by the community and is able to integrate much more easily. We follow her anxiously as the story unfolds, unsure if she’ll be able to keep up the pretense. The contrasting gender roles in society was particularly striking to see. Through the film we learn that things were not always this way and there was a time where boys and girls alike went to school and they equally enjoyed a lot more freedoms.
In a film, it is always difficult to see a depiction of childhood where the young are forced to be adults and violence and poverty seems to be an inescapable part of their reality. But rather than feel pity, you are overcome with admiration for the way our heroine navigates her predicament against all odds. It’s an engaging and informative watch which I’d highly recommend.