Anthony Kirby was at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival to see the Angelina Jolie executive produced Irish animated film The Breadwinner, which is being tipped for Oscar success and was recently awarded Best Animated Feature by the LA Film Critics Association.
Set in Kabul at the height of the Taliban regime, The Breadwinner is a vivid adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ children’s novel about a twelve-year-old girl forced to disguise herself in order to provide for her mother, sister and toddler brother.
Parvana, voiced by Canadian Saara Chaudry, is tolerated by authorities as an aid to her father, a former teacher and poet. In one vivid 20-second scene at the commencement of the film he reminds his daughter of the great culture they’re part of and that Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, The Portuguese and the British were unable to conquer them. Parvana replies that “she’s too old for stories.” Later, however, she concocts a mythical story about a killer elephant hiding in the mountains terrorizing people in the plains, to entertain her young brother. This fantasy parallels the realistic story and is beautifully illustrated and narrated.
A young zealot forces Parvana’s father to rise from his street stall and when the invalid man is slow to obey, because of a limb lost in conflict, the zealot has him imprisoned. Parvana is now the sole support for her family. She displays a maturity well beyond her years; knowing that, as a young woman, she simply can’t work; she cuts her hair, dresses as a youth and occupies her father’s work area. She’s aided by Shauzia (Soma Chhaya), a school friend. Parvana also reads and writes. These skills help her gain the friendship of an older man with prison connections. The change in Parvana’s fortunes is mirrored in the animation, which now is more vibrant and colourful. Parvana’s obsession to rescue her crippled father from incarceration is mirrored in the episodic mythical story she concocts for her toddler brother of Sulieman, a brave young boy who travels to the mountains to battle the Elephant King and free an oppressed people.
The allegorical story, threat of imminent war, further bloody conflict and a family fleeing terror build to a shattering crescendo as fighter jets soar overhead, bombs begin to fall, and bedlam reigns in the prison where Parvana’s father is held. A later injection of poignancy, relating to the death of Parvana’s older brother years previously, gives even greater emotional impact to a film that is beautifully constructed, elegantly visualized and an object lesson in love conquering hate.
Irish director Norah Twomey and her team have enhanced a classic children’s epic and made it available to a wider audience. Because of its violence the feature might be too strong for children younger than six, however, the story and its feminist hero will definitely appeal to older viewers and possibly teenagers.
A major achievement for Twomey and her Kilkenny collaborators at Cartoon Saloon, The Breadwinner is worthy of a wide viewing audience.
The Breadwinner will have its Irish premiere at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival on 22nd February 2018.