By Noel Vera
NORA TWOMEY’s animated film The Breadwinner (adapted from the children’s novel by Deborah Ellis) is a gorgeous tapestry of a film, about a young girl and her family eking out a meager life in Taliban-run Kabul, in Afghanistan.
The film starts off grim with Nurullah (voiced by Ali Badshah) arrested by young Taliban recruit Idrees (voiced by Noorin Gulamgaus) for an imagined insult. That leaves Nurallah’s wife Fattema (voiced by Laara Sadiq), daughter Soraya (voiced by Shaista Latif), younger daughter Parvana (voiced by Saara Choudry), and baby Zaki to fend for themselves — an untenable position as women are not allowed outside unaccompanied by men (Fattema is brutally beaten when caught doing just that [she had been trying to visit Nurallah in prison]). It’s tempting to think: “oho one of those films” — basically a no-exit drama, depressing in its hopelessness; you sink down in your seat, unhappily waiting for the inevitable.
At a certain point, out of hunger and desperation, Parvana hits upon the idea of looking for work dressed up as a boy — and the film comes to life. Canadian writer Deborah Ellis found the story of a woman whose daughter disguised herself as a boy to make a living and decided to write a novel (and ensuing film) not about society-wide oppression but about survival, about the resourcefulness and resilience of the Afghan people, particularly their women.
Interwoven with Parvana’s story is a tale she tells Zaki (passed to her by her father) about heroic Sulayman, a boy determined to recover the vital planting seeds stolen from his village by the evil Elephant King.
The tale* (presumably added by author Ellis and/or screenwriter Anita Doron) directs the film’s focus on the art of storytelling. Stories play a crucial role in the film — they are how Nurallah reminds his daughter of their heritage, how Parvana manages to soothe Zaki (and by implication Soraya and the badly bruised Fattema), how she responds when confronted with danger, Sulayman’s fictional courage shoring up her (very real) own. Stories for Parvana are a way of establishing one’s identity — knowing who you are, what you are capable of. As Nurullah tells Parvana at the film’s beginning: “A fractured land in the claws of the Hindu Kush mountains, scorched by the fiery eyes of the northern deserts. Black rubble earth against ice peaks — our land was the petrified skeleton of a monster. We are Ariana, the land of the noble and honorable.” Parvana may sigh and roll her eyes (she’s been forced to listen one time too many) but she retains the words and in time of need they sustain her, keep her strong.
Twomey finds a bleak poetry in the everyday cityscape of Kabul — the bleached clay walls, the parched soil, the rough texture of workmen’s lined faces, against which rattle corrugated tin roofing, barbed wire, gleaming Kalashnikov rifle barrels (if there’s any color in this muted palette of earth tones it’s to be found in Parvana’s dress, a wondrous weave of carmine cloth and glass shards that her father is selling to raise funds).
Contrast that with Parvana’s fables, where villagers gather in concentric rainbow circles singing and laughing, and a massive armored elephant sits on a dark crag against a looming bloody sky. The characters and animals are flat cutout figures remarkable for their expressiveness their color — a scarlet mist with smoky groping tentacles menaces Sulayman and he flees through a green-and-purple forest; the Elephant King finally confronting the young man kicks up dust in a spray of red roses.
Critics and viewers (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the film!) have compared the film to Siddiq Barmak’s 2003 Osama and I can see the resemblance: both feature a family in need, both have a young protagonist in perilous crossdressing disguise.** I love Barmak’s spare unflinching storytelling but submit Twomey puts a different enough spin on her tale that it really stands on its own. Osama, beyond her mother’s early inspiration to cross-dress, doesn’t really develop as a character; Parvana and her mother — who can read and write and (more importantly) speak up for themselves — learn to do so against greater dangers. Barmak’s film has a grim narrative with a whopper of a bad-luck twist three-fourths of the way through that seals the protagonist’s fate; Twomey’s softens her own film’s conclusion (though I must note that she spares us the Hollywood-style last-minute family reunion) but also makes the halfway believable case (halfway believable because she fudges the circumstances somewhat) that a determined woman can make a difference sometimes, somehow.
Toward’s film’s end, Parvana (as apparently instructed by her father) quotes from the poet Rumi: “Raise your words not your voice. It is rain that makes the flowers grow, not thunder.” Noble sentiment that feels flimsy against Osama’s bleaker worldview, or perhaps a brave assertion of what should be rather than what is. Or perhaps it’s a longer view, over a vaster timeframe, one that includes more than just the ravages of war. Despite the earlier film, I can’t just dismiss The Breadwinner out of hand; if only for the more rounded characterization (even the cruel Idrees is granted a moment of sympathy), the at times eloquent dialogue (including that quote from Rumi), and, above all, the gorgeous mostly hand-drawn animation, I’d call it one of the best films of the past few years.
* Never mind that I can’t find any example of an Elephant King in any online site about Afghan folklore — though elephants do play a long military role in the country’s history — if the tale was made up, it’s beautifully made.
** Note that while Osama came out 14 years earlier, The Breadwinner was based on a book published three years before Barmak’s film; I’d chalk it up to common sources for different tales and leave it at that.