Director: Nora Twomey
Cast: The voices of Saara Chaudry, Laara Sadiq, Soma Bhatia, Shaista Latif, Ali Badshah, Noorin Gulamgaus, Kawa Ada
MPAA Rating: (for thematic material including some violent images)
Running Time: 1:34
Release Date: 11/17/17 (limited); 12/1/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 30, 2017
There was peace in Afghanistan at one time, the father tells his daughter. It was when he was still relatively young, playing with his friends amidst the backdrop of a city that scrolls by as the youngsters move along without a care in the world. The peace ended, though, and as the city in the background turns to rubble, his friends begin to fall behind and exit the foreground of the screen, never to return.
Peace, the father figures, must be like that in his country, too, once the fighting started. At least he knew it. His children have not, and it's not clear if they ever will.
That's the backdrop of The Breadwinner, which is set during a time in Afghanistan that doesn't become perfectly clear until the third act. Parents have been dead since children were infants. Siblings were killed by explosives that litter the landscape. Family members are taken by the Taliban for infractions of rules that only mean something to that fundamentalist force, and then, those family members are rarely seen again.
It's an animated film, created by an Irish animation studio (Cartoon Saloon) and based on a novel by a Canadian author (Deborah Ellis), but despite these seeming obstacles to authenticity, this is a deeply felt and unsparingly realistic depiction of Afghanistan at a time of tyrannical rule by religious fundamentalists. In other words, there's a reason the father fears that his children will never see peace: They certainly aren't living in it now. Whatever peace exists in this country is simply a façade. There may not be a shooting war in the country, but there is a battle raging—between those who want to live their lives and those who would demand that their unjust laws be followed.
The injustice is mainly aimed at women, who must cover their heads and, at a certain age, their faces whenever a man who isn't family may be present. A knock at the door sends women inside their own home into a rush to raise their head coverings. No woman is allowed to buy or sell things in the local market unless a man is accompanying them. Men have no problems in this regard, and even boys are able to buy whatever they want.
Our protagonist is a pre-teen girl named Parvana (voice of Saara Chaudry), who was taught to read and write by her parents, who lived in a time when Parvana's mother Fattema (voice of Laara Sadiq) was allowed to attend school. Parvana was raised in a time when such an idea was against the Taliban's rules.
None of this would be an issue, beyond the injustice of it all, except that Parvana's father Nuruallah (voice of Ali Badshah) is arrested by the Taliban. The family that remains consists of Parvana, Fattema, an elder daughter Soraya (voice of Shaista Latif), and a baby. Parvana once had an older brother. He died under circumstances of which the family never speaks.
There is, then, no one in the family who is allowed to make money or, if they had the money to do so, buy food from the market. Parvana cuts her long, raven hair (In a sad, overhead shot of the family in bed, the girl's hair and the hair of her mother connect to form a void where Nuruallah should be) and, to complete her disguise, puts on the clothes of her older, deceased brother. As a boy, she has the freedom to offer reading and writing services in the market, to buy food for the family, and to try to negotiate with the prison guards for her father's release. Shauzia (voice of Soma Bhatia), another local girl who has disguised herself as a boy, tells Parvana that a bribe might help with the guards.
The narrative is split between the realities of Kabul in an unclear time before the 2001 start of the United States-led war in Afghanistan and a relatively lighter story of fantasy. The fantasy tale, begun by Nuruallah before his detainment and continued by Parvana to calm her baby brother, is about a young boy in another time of conflict. His conflict involves a great Elephant King who lives at the top of a mountain and an army of jaguars, who have stolen seeds from a nearby village. The fantasy doesn't so much comment upon or enlighten Parvana's story—save for general notions of courage—as much as it interrupts it. Director Nora Twomey changes the film's style for the fantasy story, transitioning from the sharp lines and solid colors of the real-life scenes to animation that looks like paper models in motion. That shift only furthers the disconnect on an aesthetic level.
Most of the story, though, belongs to Parvana, as she experiences the injustices and witnesses the brutality of the Taliban's rule (Despite its medium, this is not a film for children). The Taliban itself is represented by two soldiers—one whose violent tendencies are succinctly dissected when he's called into an actual fight and another who possesses an unexpected level of kindness, as well as an eventual realization of loss. Twomey and screenwriter Anita Doron condemn this system, but they're also keenly aware of how it is able to thrive—through the whims of young men who want to prove themselves and the silence of otherwise good men living in fear.
Fear is a constant here, and the film offers no quarter from it, even in the end, as the family finds some semblance of peace as yet another conflict arrives. The Breadwinner serves as a time capsule of specific era, but it's correct to leave that specificity until the finale. It could be then in Afghanistan, or it could be now.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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