Rates: * * * *
Why Did I Watch It? Big fan of Cartoon Saloon’s earlier film ‘Song of the Sea’.
After the Soviets left Afghanistan in the 1990s, the country plunged into chaos. Order was only restored via the most extreme method; the Taliban, a group of religous students that had formed a militia with US help, finally assumed control and established a fundamentalist religious government. For anyone not aligned with their extreme interpration of Islam: darkness descended.
During the 2010s, Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon forged a name for itself with visually distinctive movies utilising old school techniques. Their first efforts ‘The Secret of Kells’ and ‘Song of the Sea’ (incredible) had taken Irish folk tales and given them a contemporary spin; heartfelt films for older kids, that looked like nothing else.
With ‘The Breadwinner’, the studio ambitiously expanded their scope, applying their approach to a much more serious story. Based on a best selling novel by Deborah Ellis, the film shows life in Kabul under the Taliban, focussing on the day-to-day struggles of one family. When young Parvana’s father, Nurullah, is arrested on a bogus charge, it plunges her family into crisis; he was the only male member of the house, and life without him is almost impossibly difficult.
Under the Taliban, women were not only required to cover themselves in public under a burqa, but were not even allowed to leave their house unaccompanied by a man. In the absence of Nurullah, simple tasks like going to the market, or collecting water from the well, become a serious risk; Parvana’s mother takes a beating from a Taliban enforcer the one time she does venture out. The acute fear this engenders – of always being watched, of not being allowed to do anything – is very unsettling, and well captured. It plays a bit like a medievil version of ‘1984’; showing how these totalitarian regimes never change their MO, only the instruments of their delivery.
But Parvana is plucky. And as soon as she cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy, an entirely different side of Afghan society opens up to her. She can roam freely, chat and joke with the market sellers, even hustle up some money doing odd jobs; where she meets Shauzia, another girl in disguise. The contrast between this new existance, and her mother and sister hiding in fear at home, underlines the inequity of the Taliban regime; a system based on misogyny and hate.
The film features stunning animation throughout. The cluttered, dusty streets of Kabul are rendered in vivid detail, and there are some powerful moments; as when Parvana reads a letter to an illiterate man (it contains bad news), or when she and Shazuia see American fighter jets scream overhead, and exchange a worried look.
But the film really cuts loose during several sequences that illustrate an old folk tale that Parvana tells to her baby brother. Featuring a wicked elephant king, a demonic black cloud, and several impossible tasks, these highly stylised instalments provide a break from the drab realities of these characters lives. It shows the power of imagination, and of story telling as a medium; the stories we tell each other, orally, or in books, films, any means, are not just pleasant time fillers but a way to help us cope. They are like waking dreams, through which we process the events that surround us.
The sober, earnest tone, and the stylish visual design, combine to produce something unique. An unusual way to tell what is a fairly simple, if harrowing, story, that adds a lot to the impact.
‘Stories remain in our hearts, even when everything else has gone.’