Family, telling stories and history are all key elements to The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner. The Breadwinner, the latest feature from Irish animation studio, Cartoon Saloon, unlike Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, takes place in war-torn Kabul, in Afghanistan.
In a feature that is part-Mulan and part-Grave of the Fireflies, family, stories and history remain vital in The Breadwinner, but the mythical, fantastical tone is scaled back and replaced with a brutal reality that will challenge parents and children alike. After only three features, The Breadwinner proves that Cartoon Saloon can be named in the same list of great, contemporary animation houses that include Pixar, Studio Ghibli and Laika.
Parvana (Saara Chaudry) is an 11-year-old girl in the middle of a war-zone. Her Dad lost his foot fighting in the war. Her mother is sick. Her older sister supports at home while her toddler brother smiles and plays, blissfully unaware of the nightmare they are trapped within. Her father tells her of the history of the country, and how there was a time where men and women were free to learn and grow, but now things have changed, they need to cling onto the stories that they know. As a girl, Parvana is in a thorny situation, expected to wear a hijab when in public and always with a man by her side. When her father is arrested, Parvana is forced to change who she is to help her family and, with the small bit of money she gains, bribe the guards to let her father free. It is a dangerous, violent world, where telling fairy-tale-like stories to her family, friends and to herself, is a crucial means for survival.
The Breadwinner presents us with a world that we recognise from newsreels and media coverage. Across the dusty cityscapes and block-shaped homes, we are invited into a family that pride themselves on education: mother is a writer, father is a teacher. Yet, they are forced to teach silently and hide any books they own. To westerners, this is an alien world and as unrecognisable as the Celtic castle in The Secret of Kells. But, director Nora Twomey fuses in relatable family squabbles (such as poking fun at a sibling’s mole or in the connection they have towards the youngest child) into the dramatic plot, ensuring that we can all relate to the desperate family at the centre of the story. Parvana is striking in her sharp, green eyes and is equally believable and recognisable whether she is dressed as a girl or a boy. It is equally effective in other characters that are forced into this dual personality for survival – this is the achievement of carefully-drawn animation and precise detail on emotions and movement, in addition to the voice-talent of Saara Chaudry.
Though rusted cars and broken walls dominate the poverty-stricken streets, there is beauty overflowing from The Breadwinner. Whether it is in the highlights of a red dress that Parvana is forced to part with, or in the vivid colours of the tale of Suleiman, it is this lush and engaging world that Cartoon Saloon has visualised that draws you in entirely. This means that the mature moments, including the assault of family members and the forced-marriage of a sibling, are countered by an accessible form of story-telling. The Breadwinner is the rare example of an animation that aspires, and succeeds, in becoming so much more than just a “kid’s movie”. The Breadwinner is brutal and striking filmmaking that refuses to weaken the blow of reality and instead, overpowers the truth with breath-taking beauty.
This was originally published for Culturefly.co.uk in September 2018