Hope Springs Eternal in The Breadwinner

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“Animation is, for me, the ultimate expression of hope.”[1] As Parvana’s father, who has been left with only one leg after a war, is bundled off to prison leaving his family in dire circumstances, you may begin to wonder what director Nora Twomey meant when she said this. Hope, in The Breadwinner, is hard-won. It tells the story of a girl who disguises herself as a boy in order for her family to survive in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Injustice, oppression and misogyny dominate the social landscape, while a family of women struggle to survive. Yet hope does, somehow, break through.

“I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places” whispered Aisling in the first film from Cartoon Saloon, The Secret of Kells. Twomey, who co-directed that masterpiece, could have used the exact same phrase in her latest film. One reviewer described The Breadwinner like this: “The film mines its significant power from that relationship between beauty and terror, Twomey using animation to redeem a story that would have been unbearably sad in live-action.”[2] In the face of such cruelty, can beauty still exist? The tug between these two extremes creates a film of delicate balance, where both are possible, even within a story ostensibly aimed at children. Beauty somehow finds a way to thrive in the most fragile place, a world dominated by terror.

The tension between these two is seen in the structure of the tale, which not only follows the travails of Parvana as she tries to support her family, but also contains an ongoing story about a heroic boy from legend, as told by Parvana. This story within a story starts out as escapism – Parvana’s younger brother needs it as a distraction from the daily trials of their life. Eventually, though, it becomes less about escapism and more about explanation. The story of the boy fighting against a mythic beast to rescue his people becomes a tale that helps us understand Parvana and reveals how people can discover heroism even in the most desperate situations. It becomes the hope that she clings onto as her situation spirals out of control. As the two storylines begin to weave together, beauty and terror intermingle without one drowning the other out.

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We also see hope breaking through the darkness even in the way it’s animated. Twomey admits that The Breadwinner isn’t as stylised as previous Cartoon Saloon films. The intricate Celtic knots and Kandinsky-esque abstraction of The Song of the Sea was enchanting and served the fairy-tale tone of that film, but it would be wildly out of place in an animation with such a serious subject matter. “We didn’t want to put a style on this film,” explains Twomey, “we wanted to make sure that the characters in the story led the look of the film.”[3] The result is a world of cement-greys and desert-golds, where the curves of rolling dunes are broken by the harsh angles of abandoned tanks.

Again, though, hope breaks through in the form of Parvana’s story.  “By contrast, the story world is just a joy of imagination—a lack of physics, and all the things that we were doing the opposite to in the real world. The same with the colour design.”[4] The story world is rendered to look like paper cut-outs, recalling the shadow-puppetry of Lotte Reiniger but with the colour palette of The Secret of Kells. It’s dazzling and mythic, transporting you to a fantastical and, at times, comical place with its deceptively complex aesthetic. This isn’t to say that the ‘real’ segments of the film are visually dull – far from it. Twomey’s eye for framing creates striking compositions, showing child-height perspectives of adults and capturing wordless emotions with the smallest of details. Rarely has an apple being peeled carried such emotional resonance. As with all the best animation, the medium serves the story, finding scenes of humanity among the rubble and the rabble.

This may seem to be too much for younger audiences to digest, but part of the hope expressed by The Breadwinner, the hope that Twomey so delicately evokes, is that it could act as an awakening moment for the children and teenagers watching it. The difficulty of depicting such complex sociopolitics for a younger crowd did not seem to daunt the director.

“Our job as adults is not to protect children from things that might scare them. Our job is to help children deal with things that will scare them, to deal with their own fears. Because if they grow up not knowing about any of these things, all they are going to do is ignore them, or oversimplify them, or listen to soundbites and not be able to deal with them. If children are exposed to issues explored in The Breadwinner with their families in a supportive way, they will grow up to be stronger adults with the capacity to actually make changes in the world, which to me is the ultimate expression of hope.”[5]

Animation gives Twomey total control over the images in the film, unhindered by sets or cities. As such, it can tell a heart-wrenching story in a manner that is palatable to younger audiences without softening the harshness of the world or the reality of Parvana’s situation for many girls around the world. That’s why it’s not an insane idea for Twomey to be saying that her film is inherently about hope. It can be about hope even when these situations clearly continue in the real world after the credits have rolled, even when the film itself ends only with the smallest glimmer of light. Because this is a film that understands the power of stories and their ability to change perspectives, to awaken people to injustice. If children watch this film, sometimes from between their fingers, then they may catch on to the heroism of Parvana and the empathy that flows from every frame. And that looks a lot like hope.

Nathanael Smith 
Freelance copywriter, copy editor and film critic
May 2018

[1] https://www.cartoonbrew.com/feature-film/animation-ultimate-expression-hope-interview-breadwinners-nora-twomey-saara-chaudry-154759.html

[2] http://www.indiewire.com/2017/11/the-breadwinner-review-angelina-jolie-cartoon-saloon-1201898516/

[3] http://deadline.com/2017/11/the-breadwinner-nora-twomey-angelina-jolie-animation-interview-1202203523/

[4] http://deadline.com/2017/11/the-breadwinner-nora-twomey-angelina-jolie-animation-interview-1202203523/

[5] https://www.cartoonbrew.com/feature-film/animation-ultimate-expression-hope-interview-breadwinners-nora-twomey-saara-chaudry-154759.html

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