DIR: Nora Twomey • WRI: Anita Doron, Deborah Ellis • PRO: Anthony Leo, Tomm Moore, Andrew Rosen, Paul Young • ED: Darragh Byrne • MUS: Jeff Danna, Mychael Danna • CAST: Saara Chaudry, Soma Chhaya, Noorin Gulamgaus
The Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon have cemented themselves as an animation powerhouse. Such a claim may be lofty for any other young animation studio, but not for one with three feature films and just as many Academy Award nominations.
The first two films, The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, breathe new life into Irish folklore. They allow myths and legends of custodial seanchaí to find a new home on the cinema screen. Tales survived in largely Gaeltacht areas have been transposed onto a world stage, with international critics comparing Saloon’s work to that of Pixar or Japan’s venerated Studio Ghibli. Their Irish cultural heritage has played a major role in establishing the identity for which the studio has become so acclaimed. If it’s not broke; don’t fix it, right?
For this reason, it may be of surprise to some that Nora Twomey’s follow-up to The Secret of Kells takes place 6,000 kilometres from Trinity Library. The Breadwinner tells the story of Parvana, a young girl living in Afghanistan under Taliban control. Her story is a harrowing one of severe hardship and perseverance in the most dire of circumstances.
Perhaps too intense for young children, the film wastes no time with throwing its characters into misery. Parvana’s father, a former teacher insistent on the value of banned books, is arrested and imprisoned by the Taliban in the first ten minutes. What continues is a spiral of disrepair, tinged with stretches of hope and sorrow. There are very difficult moments – violence towards the child protagonist is not presented as comic peril, but rather a horrifying reality. So much misery would wear down a viewer, but the film endures with an aching humanity that is optimistic but not naïve.
The optimism inherent to The Breadwinner rises from its deep love of storytelling. Truly, this is a story on the necessity of stories. Not only does Parvana’s father preach storytelling as a tenet, Parvana herself tells a story of her own throughout the film – a Campbellian myth of a boy fighting a mountainous elephant – all of which expertly echoes the dramatic beats of her own life. This film-within-a-film is made distinct through a whole new animation style. The clean pencil lines and simple shapes of the main film are traded in for computer-simulated construction paper. The stylistic shift is refreshing, although the segments bow down to slapstick a bit too frequently. Tonally, it’s jarring; conceptually, it’s quite clever. Cartoon Saloon cannot seem to escape its obsession with stories and myths.
In today’s world of cultural appropriation (and the larger blowback against cultural appropriation), one may question the move of an Irish animation studio to make a film so distinctly Afghan. Luckily, the culture is depicted with care and strong attention to detail – there is nary a Celtic trace to be found. The beautiful animation feels graceful and lived-in, never depicting an “other”. The absence of any American characters speaks to commitment in showing the Afghan perspective – we see the start of the American War in Afghanistan, but Western characters cannot be found beyond a few anonymous planes. The geo-political background to the War is unknown to our characters. Hell, the war itself remains unknown until it reaches their doorstep.
Despite the content being quite intense as previously described, The Breadwinner imparts valuable lessons that braver children will surely take on, have they the perseverance to hear them. The necessity of stories. The necessity of action in troublesome times. The necessity of compassion in the face of pain. All told through the eyes of a child. The film’s commitment and endearment to the power of storytelling is self-evidently proved by the rousing emotions it provokes.