BFI London Film Festival: The Breadwinner

The Breadwinner
The Breadwinner
Directed by Nora Twomey
Starring Saara Chaudry, Soma Chhaya and Laara Sadiq
Screening at LFF October 8th, 11th, 15th, 2017

by Richard Hamer

Parvana is an 11-year-old girl, living in Taliban-controlled Kabul with her mother, father, sister and baby brother. The father loves to tell Parvana stories, and in turn Parvana tells them to the baby: Stories of their life, their history, or of more fantastical things altogether. But when her father is arrested by the Taliban, they find themselves in an impossible position: Under Taliban law, it is illegal for females of any age to leave the house unless accompanied by a man. With the only man in the family gone, they are unable to work, buy food or even fetch water. In desperation, Parvana cuts her hair, disguises herself as a boy, and heads out into the war-torn streets to make ends meet.

Coming from Cartoon Saloon and director Nora Twomey (responsible for the wonderful Song of the Sea), The Breadwinner is a beautiful piece of animation. The apparent ‘flatness’ of their art style has always belied a grace and fluidity of motion; a depth of colour and mood. This is no more obvious than in the numerous fairy tale sequences that Parvana narrates. The story of a fearless man on an improbable quest is a transparent metaphor, but delightful nonetheless, with its paper cut-out style, and its kaleidoscope of colours. Even when the mood darkens, this seemingly simple art style proves adaptable: Horror is stark and plain. Faces express so much with so little that its power can be unexpected: The finale brought me to tears.

Because of course, The Breadwinner is no easy watch. At times, the oppression experienced by the women in this world is unbearable, not just for its cruelty but for its utter hopelessness: There is no question of ‘fighting’ the Taliban; every ‘victory’ young Parvana experiences is one of happiness found despite the circumstances. And while those circumstances are grim indeed, The Breadwinner is at pains to show that this is a genuinely happy family. They love each other, and their country; and while some of those Parvana encounters long to flee, it is only because they hate what it has become, or fear the war that has yet to arrive.

In short, its voice is a rare one in mainstream cinema, let alone the animated kind: The Breadwinner is both a fierce condemnation of the Taliban, and a celebration of the history and people of Afghanistan. It is a distinction I’m of course aware of in the abstract, but have never seen put so forcefully as it has been here: The policies of those in power, and the spirit of the people they govern, are not the same thing. Just ask your average American.

All of which makes The Breadwinner an important, essential film. It is only fitting that a movie all about the power of story should itself tell one of the most important stories there is: That though the world is vast and filled with difference, its people all demand the same simple thing; a family, a home, and a voice that can be heard.


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