Confronting the gender ideologies of the Middle East, the latest by Cartoon Saloon is contemporary and relevant, telling its story with a quiet conviction that proves both powerful and inspiring.
“Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that makes the flowers grow, not thunder.” The closing words spoken by Parvana, an Afghan girl forced to become a boy in order to provide for her family and rescue her father, speak of gentleness over force. Such a notion sets up the approach with which The Breadwinner tells its story; a tale which seems to invite aggression but is treated with modesty and care.
We meet Parvana selling her family’s best clothing at a market, she also sells words “anything written, anything read.” Although, as a young girl, her presence is unwanted. Under Taliban occupation, women are not to leave the home without male supervision and must remain covered. When Parvana’s father is accused of teaching his daughters and hiding story books, he is abducted and imprisoned. Without him, Parvana and her family are themselves imprisoned within their own home, unable to purchase food or generate income. Cutting her hair, Parvana chooses to impersonate a boy, allowing her to provide for her family and attempt to free her father.
Leaving Ireland for the first time after The Secret of the Kells and Song of the Sea, Cartoon Saloon continue their perfect streak proving themselves to be a contemporary animation powerhouse. The Breadwinner provided their third consecutive Oscar Nomination and unfortunately their third consecutive narrow defeat, being thwarted by none other than Pixar’s Coco.
It is no surprise that the animation is stunning. The sandy dystopia of Afghan streets feel as much pulled from the pages of a beautifully illustrated fairytale as they do traced from the haunting images of war photography. It is this very balance between wondrous storybook and gritty reality which defines The Breadwinner‘s brilliance.
Some might find The Breadwinner‘s storytelling slightly slow however. In its quiet approach it is at risk of alienating animation’s specific quality of scale and wonder, with its realism aligning it with a slower pace than typical animated outings. It is, at times, this wonder that is briefly missing but is more than restored in its final moments.
Stories themselves, as well as the manner in which they are told, are of great significance throughout the film, as well as to the characters themselves. Parvana’s mother is a writer, her father a teacher of admirable liberalism, and Parvana herself refers to stories for guidance throughout her confrontations with national adversity. Storytelling in the film serves to emphasize the importance of stories in creating empathy and change; with The Breadwinner itself offering evidence of the very same idea. Doing so quietly, it exposes how ideologies can be moved and empathy gained through stories, even in the most intimidating of monsters.
Understating its bold confrontation of middle eastern ideology, Parvana’s story resists the temptation to become thunderous and keeps its voice low. In doing so, it’s message rains lightly drawing attention to the dark cloud which hangs over Afghanistan as much as the flowers – embodied in the bravery and compassion of Parvana – which bloom beneath. The Breadwinner tells a story which needs to be heard, but also one better told as it is here, not through a shout but in the kind warning of a whisper.
The Breadwinner (2018), directed by Nora Twomey, is distributed in the UK by StudioCanal, Certificate 12A.