The Breadwinner Review
Irish animation company Cartoon Saloon have been quietly making delightfully unique films since 2009, receiving critical acclaim for their first two efforts but struggling to achieve the same level of recognition at the box office, despite picking up two Oscar nominations along the way. It's a company long overdue its breakthrough moment and one can only hope their new release, The Breadwinner, is the one that will see their craft acknowledged on a wider scale.
The timing of its release feels right in a broader social context with the film dealing with mature themes such as male entitlement and patriarchal rule - subjects that have always been relevant but are now being discussed with more urgency in the public domain.
Nora Twomey helms her first solo effort after co-directing the company's debut feature, The Secret of Kells, and the story sees the animation company leave behind Ireland's rich mysticism to follow a young girl named Parvana (Saara Chaudry) living in Kabul, Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
There is no room to breathe placed under such tyranny where women are only allowed to walk the streets accompanied by a male family member. The arrest of Parvana’s father forces her mother and sisters back into the house with no source of income or allowances granted to leave and find food and water.
But Parvana’s resourcefulness comes to the fore and when she learns her friend Shauzia (Soma Bhatia) overcame the same situation by cutting her hair and dressing as a boy, she decides to do the same. It allows her to make some money to bring home some food to keep her family alive while she tries to find a way to visit her father in prison to hand him his much needed walking stick.
Twomey faced a difficult balancing act in trying to confront the harsh realities of being a young woman in Kabul, while also making it palatable enough for a broad spectrum of ages to engage with. It’s a quality she admired about Deborah Ellis’ novel she has adapted for the big screen and one she is able to uphold without patronising younger members of the audience.
Cartoon Saloon’s penchant for delving into traditional art-based storytelling reveals itself in a tale told by Parvana to her younger brother about a boy who embarks on a dangerous journey to defeat a fierce Elephant King, giving the people the freedom they cherish in the process. It echoes her own dangerous task of travelling through a war torn country where the skies are dominated by machine-like monsters and exploding artillery. This cut-out style of animation is beautifully realised and shows once again the level of respect with which Cartoon Saloon handle the cultures and perspectives they have the privilege of illustrating.
Parvana herself may believe she is “too old for stories” but young Canadian actress Saara Chaudry ensures her narrative remains engrossing, educational and reflective of the thousands like her living in Afghanistan today. Saara was only 11-years-old at the time of her performance and given the weight of the themes she works through it feels all the more admirable. Deborah Ellis' book is a direct reflection of dozens of real lives who had managed to flee the country and despite the format of the film you never feel removed from the truth of the situation.
With events building to a tense crescendo threaded together with an emotional backstory it would have been easy to fall into hackneyed clichés but Twomey avoids those pitfalls without compromising on its depth of meaning. There is a sharper sense of reality about The Breadwinner compared to the previous films released by Twomey and her co-workers, one where disappointment and tragedy are more tangible but finding the inner strength to remain hopeful even in the bleakest of circumstances feels equally as possible.
Read our interview with the director of The Breadwinner, Nora Twomey, right here.