The Breadwinner is a richly animated family drama set in war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan, in which the harsh realities of life under the Taliban are made bearable by the telling of stories. Stirring, hard-hitting, moving and beautiful to look at, this story about a girl disguising herself as a boy to support her family has echoes of Disney’s Mulan, though younger viewers might find it a bit slow and worthy.
Based on the bestselling novel by Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner is the work of Cartoon Saloon, the Irish animation studio behind the quirky and charming The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2015). The hand-painted animation here is much more realistic, but no less gorgeous: the dusty yellow city-scape with its minarets and pockmarked walls; the spices and fruit in the marketplace; the night sky with its crescent moon.
In contrast, the vivid stories told by 11 year old Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) to her baby brother are illustrated by charmingly funny and striking cardboard cut-outs (think Captain Pugwash) moving across richly-coloured backgrounds.
At the start of the film Parvana’s father (Ali Badshah), a schoolteacher who has lost a leg in the war, tells her: ‘stories remain in our hearts when all else is gone’. He is proud of his country but explains to his daughter (and the audience) why Afghanistan has such a terrible history of war and conflict: ‘we were a pathway to everywhere … but we were at the edge of empires’. A succession of tyrants such as Ghengis Khan left their destructive mark.
And now the Taliban are in charge, who do not allow women to appear in public, unless they are accompanied by their father or uncle. So when Parvana’s father is arrested on trumped-up charges of possessing ‘forbidden books’, the family struggle to survive. The sparky and resourceful Parvana has a solution – she cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy. This practice is called Bacha Posh and is part of a long-standing tradition in Afghanistan.
Parvana meets a girl she knew from school who is also pretending to be a boy. Together they find work to try to get enough money to bribe the guards to release Parvana’s father. But ominous jet planes streaking overhead mean that another war is coming. The situation seems like an impossible one – how will Parvana rescue her father now, and how will her family stay together?
Composers Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna, who have previously provided a scene-setting soundtrack using traditional Afghan instruments such as sitars, now ratchet up the tension by using pulse-racing one-note violins (see Radiohead’s The Witch), building to a gripping and moving climax.
The final words of The Breadwinner belong to the narrator of Parvana’s parallel Elephant King story, who summarises: ‘we are a scorched and fractured land whose people are its greatest treasure’, and leaves us with an anti-war message: ‘it is rain that makes the flowers grow, not thunder.’
And we think of the film’s scenes of orange flowers sprouting in a desert of burnt-out tanks.