THE BREADWINNER

★★★★

THE POWER OF STORYTELLING AND THE HUMAN SPIRIT

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Jake Watt
27th May 2018

From executive producer Angelina Jolie and the creators of the Academy Award-nominated ‘The Secret of Kells’ and ‘Song of the Sea’, comes a new animated film, ‘The Breadwinner’, based on Deborah Ellis' bestselling children’s novel. While researching her book, the author spent several months interviewing women and girls in refugee camps in Pakistan (including a mother and a girl who disguised herself as a boy) and used these interviews as the basis of her depiction of life in Afghanistan.

‘The Breadwinner’ also marks the solo directorial debut for Nora Twomey, who co-directed ‘The Secret of Kells’ and worked on the story of ‘Song of the Sea’, in addition to co-founding Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenny, Ireland (along with Tomm Moore and Paul Young).

In Kabul, a Taliban-ruled city, women are strictly prohibited to go outside during the start of 21st century. Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry), is a brave and resourceful young girl whose father, Nurullah (Ali Badshah), is falsely accused by a volatile young Taliban member, Idrees, and imprisoned for being a threat to Islam. Without a father to care for them, the family - which includes Parvana; her older sister, Soraya (Shaista Latif); their baby brother, Zaki; and their mother, Fattema (Laara Sadiq) - is left without any means to make money or even purchase goods in the market. When Fattema is beaten for being in the streets without a male chaperone, Parvana is forced by circumstances to be the breadwinner for her family, cutting off her hair to become Nurullah's nephew, Aatish. Parvana is befriended by Shauzia (Soma Chhaya), another girl who dresses as a boy, who mentors her in the ways of the streets. The two girls discover that “when you are a boy you can go anywhere you like.”

'THE BREADWINNER' TRAILER

The story of a girl disguising herself as a boy is a familiar one, seen many times in films like ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, ‘Albert Nobbs’ and countless William Shakespeare adaptations (like the Amanda Bynes-starring classic ‘She's the Man’, based on the play 'Twelfth Night'). However, ‘The Breadwinner’ takes a unique approach to the theme - Parvana doesn't wear a disguise in order to fight alongside dudes, like Miranda Otto’s Eowyn in ‘Lord of the Rings: Return of the King’, or to learn next to bearded blokes, as in ‘Yentl’, but simply to leave the house in order to feed her family. The movie emotionally captures the brutal, anti-women, anti-intellectual, and even anti-literacy stance of the Taliban regime. Women are pursued and assaulted for not covering themselves properly or being in public without a husband or father. Parvana’s perseverance under these unbelievably tense conditions is ultimately an inspiration for her beaten-down mother and sheltered older sister, who both manage to find steely cores of strength within themselves by the film’s end.

Another interesting facet of the film is Parvana’s commitment to carrying on her mother and father's love of traditional Afghani folktales and legends (Nurulluh believes deeply that “stories remain in our hearts when all else is gone”). This leads to a stylized story-within-a-story that Parvana tells her young brother Zaki about a boy named Sulayman who saves his village from the evil elephant king. Featuring skeleton ghosts and attacking jaguars, the story isn’t anywhere near as frightening as the mistreatment of people under Taliban rule. It’s also one of the weaker elements of the film, drawing the audience away from Parvana’s plight in the real world. Fortunately, Sulayman's story has an emotional twist which pays off during the film’s climactic moment, blending folklore with realism.

‘The Breadwinner’ takes a unique approach to the theme - Parvana doesn't wear a disguise in order to fight alongside dudes, like Miranda Otto’s Eowyn in ‘Lord of the Rings: Return of the King’, or to learn next to bearded blokes, as in ‘Yentl’, but simply to leave the house in order to feed her family.

The animation is beautiful. ‘The Breadwinner’ shares its predecessors’ vivid sense of a specific culture and strikingly visuals. It introduces us to a city of sandstone-hued houses where colourful flowers and teeming markets come convincingly to life, as well as vast deserts where rusted tanks are scattered like the fossilised remains of huge beasts. Cartoon Saloon’s signature animation style, focusing on eyes and facial expressions, allows you to empathize with characters in a very different way to watching actors in a live-action performance. There is something about watching a face express emotion with only a few lines of animation which makes a character universal and very easy to identify with. Composed by Academy Award winner Mychael Danna (‘Life of Pi’) and Jeff Danna (‘The Good Dinosaur’, ‘Storks’), the film's music is by turns playful, evocative, tense and haunting.

‘The Breadwinner’ received a nomination for Best Animated Feature at the 90th Academy Awards, but ultimately lost to Pixar’s ‘Coco’. It’s easy to see why - ‘The Breadwinner’ isn’t the type of light-hearted stuff you usually find in mainstream animated movies (not that Pixar doesn’t incorporate emotionally-driven story arcs in their films). ‘The Breadwinner’, however, is so gritty and "real" that it could have easily been live-action.

If you are looking for a heartfelt animated film that explores a foreign culture with surprising sensitivity and maturity, don't miss ‘The Breadwinner’ in cinemas.

Looking for more Sydney Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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