In a time where over-embellished, C.G.I., family-friendly big-studio flicks dominate the animation industry, The Breadwinner proves to be a film that refrains from sensory overstimulation to highlight its focus on politically-charged storytelling. From Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon (known for other acclaimed films such as The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014) and executively-produced by famed actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie, the film has been praised for its maturity towards its subject matter and its visually captivating storytelling. Earning itself a nomination for “Best Animated Feature Film” at the upcoming Academy Awards, The Breadwinner, although a lesser-known film compared to its repertoire of competitors, is worth a watch.
Set in war-stricken Kabul, Afghanistan, the movie, based on a book series of the same name, centers on 11-year-old Parvana (Saara Chaudry) and the devastation that befalls her family following her father’s arrest by the Taliban regime. Her remaining family–consisting of her mother, older sister and infant brother–are forced further into poverty. From the beginning, the film establishes that it is not meant to be a happy-go-lucky kids movie, with blunt scenes featuring brutality and violence that run rampant throughout the patriarchal setting. Mirroring the premise of Disney’s Mulan (1998), the audience witnesses Parvana’s transformation from an apathetic teen to “the breadwinner” as she is forced to take the persona of a boy, cutting her hair and crossdressing, for the sake of her family’s survival.
Alongside the main plotline, the movie also focuses on the fantasy Parvana and her father concoct within the first few minutes of the show. Trademarked by flat, colorful, paper cut-out animation reminiscent of a children’s book, their fable about a brave prince sent on a quest to confront the evil Elephant King and its fleet of red-eyed jaguars to retrieve his village’s stolen seeds comforts the cast and audience. Serving as a coping mechanism and “bedtime story,” the fable juxtaposes the bleakness of the film. The relationship between the two plots proves to be one of the movie’s stronger elements, capturing the symbiotic relationship between children and their imagination through shared time on the screen. However, as the reality of incoming war looms overhead–shown by an increasing amount of red-colored imagery and shots of war-machinery–Parvana’s family situation becomes increasingly desperate.
Although the movie suffers from abrupt transitions and a number of questionable subplots, the overall message is one that should not be overshadowed by its flaws. The main purpose of The Breadwinner, like its source material, is to educate the Western world about Afghanistan and its struggles between war and gender equality.
In fact, the author of The Breadwinner novels, Deborah Ellis, spent months at Pakistani refugee camps interviewing women and girls, using their experiences as the basis for her plot. Through Parvana, the movie highlights oppressive rules women under Taliban law currently face, including restrictions on access to education, freedom of thought and speech and appearances in public. Unlike other animated films, The Breadwinner refuses to shy away from reflecting the desolation experienced by current Afghans, showing blood, guns and beatings by the aforementioned Taliban regime. A peek at the movie’s official website only furthers this political commentary, with resources that delve into Afghanistan’s tragic history and the parallels between the fictional narrative and real life.
Parvana’s story, in particular, demonstrates the practice of the bacha posh, a Dari term meaning “dressed up as a boy”, who disguise themselves as boys. Taking up male responsibilities, Parvana and fellow bacha posh become the “breadwinners” of the family, protecting and representing their fellow kin. After Parvana’s transformation, the bleak tone of the movie transforms as she discovers her new freedoms as a boy. Shown by the dramatic transition from dull color schemes to warm and saturated hues, Parvana has a newfound confidence in her male disguise. Finding refuge in a fellow bacha posh, Shauzia (Soma Bhatia), the two wander about the market square taking odd jobs to support their varying dreams.
Despite its label as a child’s film, The Breadwinner is as provocative as it is adventurous and compelling. Parvana and her fantastical side-story demonstrate the important relationship between children and their imagination, particularly the solace storytelling and fictional lands can bring during times of great distress. More importantly, the film showcases the strenuous lives many displaced Afghan families have experienced through a cast even the most ignorant audiences can connect to.
Aside from occasional plot holes and uneven storytelling, the film makes up for its flaws through delicate and charming animation. Although not as child-friendly and cheesy as most of the more recent animated films, it’s definitely one of the more impactful and rewarding ones to grace the silver screens.
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