A kaleidoscope of colour and creativity, The Breadwinner is a melting pot of myth and reality. Tanks sunk in the sand litter the outskirts of Kabul. Dust filters a sickly sun. And in the Taliban-controlled streets no one’s safe, no one’s free. Particularly not a young girl with ideas of her own and the ability to read and write. Telling stories, though, may yet be the key to Parvana’s – and her family’s – survival.
The Breadwinner is the third Oscar-nominated feature from Kilkenny-based studio Cartoon Saloon. It shares the signature warp and weft of their previous films, The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. The earlier features, rooted in Irish mythology, used art, fable and sinuous storytelling to weave illuminated testaments to the human spirit. Hope-filled, the studio’s films never shy away from the darkness and dangers of life.
When Parvana’s father, a former school teacher who lost a leg in the recent war, is imprisoned by the Taliban, her family faces starvation. Unable to go outside - let alone be served in shops - without a male escort, the family’s food stocks are running low. After being beaten by a teenage zealot, Parvana’s mother, already grieving for the loss of her son, is losing hope. Her elder sister faces a potential marriage with a distant family. And Parvana keeps her infant brother settled with made-up stories about a boy’s quest to defeat the evil Elephant King. What to do?
Cutting her hair and wearing her dead brother’s clothes, Parvana pretends to be a boy – and soon finds that not only is she able to buy food, she can move freely. Meeting Shauzia, another girl-turned-boy, Parvana finds the key to survival: selling her literacy – 'Anything written! Anything read!' – and learning the art of bribery. But with the Taliban net closing in around her, and the sky torn with war planes, time’s running out.
It sounds like a tough watch yet it’s anything but. A loose adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ young adult novel, The Breadwinner comes alive with wonderful artwork and an excellent voice-cast. The fairytale is spun throughout the film with a richly-realised flowering of almost 3-D imagery. While Irish illuminations enriched the earlier films, the luminous intricacy of Persian art seems to have been the source for art directors Reza Riahi and Ciaran Duffy.
There's humour, too, in Parvana’s and Shauzia’s friendship and particularly in how this plays out in the fairytale – the two girls adding and rewinding the adventures together. The Danna Brothers’ score thrums with rhythms and fun when it needs to, eliding into non-western orchestral sounds to evoke threats, thoughts and dangers. Unevenly mixed sound, when the real and fairytale stories interweave and climax, is the only slight misstep.
Director Nora Twomey, a founder of Cartoon Saloon, has acknowledged Pan’s Labyrinth as a touchstone. And it shows: a fairytale mirroring the real world, where the true monsters are human. It’s what the studio does well – treating young people like the emerging adults they are. And with the strong card of superlative animation to 'sugar coat' - Twomey’s words - the effect. Violence is implied thought but seen only once with Parvana’s mother taking a stand, seizing a brandished knife-blade.
Like Studio Ghibli’s films, Cartoon Saloon makes animated movies for intelligent kids and adults. Or at least anyone willing to see the world afresh and how we can make it better. Angelina Jolie, a UN Goodwill Ambassador, who has built schools for girls in Afghanistan, executive produced, lending her company’s clout and a personal insight into Afghan culture.
A primer in Afghan history and the consequences of intolerance, the film’s nevertheless more universal than that. Believably told and with styles of animation that richly rove across the screen, The Breadwinner is a rewarding cinematic experience.