The Breadwinner is a film that I’ve had on my radar for a while. Since it’s the new film from Cartoon Saloon, the production company behind The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea and the story of the film is incredibly relevant to today. I also thought it was going to be interesting as a major departure from the other films of Cartoon Saloon, it not having Tomm Moore involved as director with Nora Twomey, the co-director of The Secret of Kells at the helm, not based on Irish folklore, not staring Brendan Gleeson and the main story not being fantasy. Now it got its big release in the UK a few weeks ago, but I wasn’t able to find a cinema near me that was showing it at a good time for me. However, the day of writing this review I was down in London and found a showing of it that was at the right time for me before I had to get my train back to Cheltenham. I have to say, I’m so glad I was able to see this, this once again shows the brilliance of Cartoon Saloon.
The film takes place in Kabul in 2001, with the city under the control of the Taliban, with our focus on Parvana, a young girl whose father, Nurullah, gets arrested by the Taliban because he taught Parvana to read and write, took her to help him trade goods and told a member of the Taliban not to look at Parvana. With Nurullah arrested and the other women in the family, Parvana’s mother Fattema and sister Soraya not even being allowed out of the house alone without being attacked by the Taliban, Parvana disguises herself as a boy to be able to get enough food and money for the family, whilst also trying her best to get Nurullah out of prison. Now the main thing that works about the film is its focus on gender. We see what life is like in Kabul for women and how dangerous and horrific it is, where even going outside can be a death sentence. The courage it takes for Parvana to disguise herself as a boy is astonishing as one wrong move could result in her getting arrested or executed. The only way women can get anything remotely positive is to disguise themselves as men, which is also shown through Parvana running into an old friend, Shauzia, who has also disguised herself as a boy. Even then though, it is still difficult, Parvana and Shazia having to resort to hard labour to earn enough money (Parvana to bribe her way to see her dad in prison and Shazia to escape her abusive father) It also shows the damage that the Taliban has done to the treatment of women, with women no longer being allowed to read or write, which hit the family hard since Nurullah was a teacher and Fattema a writer, and with a large portion of the population of Kabul illiterate (with one of Parvana’s jobs being to read and write for people).
It shows that the damage done to Afghanistan lasted a lot longer than the Taliban control. It’s shown that Nurullah lost his leg during the Soviet invasion and Parvana’s older brother, Sulayman, was killed prior to the events of the film, which raises more fear for Fattema over losing another child. It kind of gives an indication as to how much damage has been done to Afghanistan that the Taliban were able to gain power. There’s also this sense of danger throughout the film through seeing American fighter jets, indicating the start of the war in Afghanistan, and the lack of focus on this for most of the film, combined with seeing the husks of old tanks and a lot of the men in the film wielding machine guns and other weapons, further shows the damage done to Afghanistan.
There’s also good thematic connections added to the film through a story Parvana tells to her brother Zaki about a boy going through hardship to save the food of his village. The way the film connects the two stories is well handled, whilst also using the way the story is told to give Parvana more depth in terms of her connection to her family. It also works in terms of using stories to preserve the heritage of Afghanistan, using them to remember the history of the country and how elements like the rule of the Taliban are cycles that will come to an end at some point, but not before causing so much damage to society that will take generations to recover from.
The performances aid this as well. Saara Chaudry shows the bravery and intelligence of Parvana well, her concern for her family, particularly her dad, shines through, along with a sense of damage and hollowness that has been created in her through how limited her life options are under Taliban rule. Soma Bhati as Shauzia is excellent as well, showing how her desire to live by the sea keeps her going through all the horrors she has to endure both out in the world and at home. The chemistry that Chaudry and Bhati has is excellent and really cements the friendship that forms between the characters. Laara Sadiq as Fattema is excellent, showing the desperation she feels over what is happening to her family and her love for her children throughout the film, that sense of love also being shown through Ali Badshah as Nurullah (along with his intelligence and respect for women) and Shaista Latif as Soraya. Another excellent performance is from Noorin Gulamgaus in a dual role, showing the terrifying cruelty and psychological damage done to young men in Afghanistan (and the subsequent harsh violence they express) through Taliban soldier Idrees, along with a more subdued, heroic role as the hero in Parvana’s story. There’s also a great subdued performance from Kawa Ada as Razaq, another Taliban soldier, but I don’t want to spoil his role in the film.
As to be expected of Cartoon Saloon, the animation is exceptional The colour scheme in the film firmly creates the oppressive feel of the Afghan desert, whilst the animation for the costumes does so much visually to show the repression of women compared to men, even in terms of how Parvana moves when dressed as a boy compared to how she dresses as a girl, there’s a greater sense of freedom in the movement. The way the buildings are designed and the way the frame presents Parvana when dressed as a girl compared to as a boy further enhance this feeling of how women are oppressed in Afghanistan through the framing of the buildings being more pronounced and harsher when Parvana is dressed as a girl. The facial expressions meanwhile are of particular note, as is always the case with Cartoon Saloon. The film could essentially be done as a silent film and you could follow everything through the facial expressions and body language, along with the use of colour. The use of darker colours in particular when Parvana is in dangerous situations is a solid visual shorthand for the danger she’s in and, once again, the oppression that she faces. The animation for the story sections meanwhile have this feel of classic Islamic art through the style and the movement of the characters, giving a good sense of visual distinctiveness to the stories whilst also paying respect to Islamic culture (which also extends to things like how the characters are animated when they pray). This respect for Islamic artistry is also present in the music, which creates a strong atmosphere throughout the film, with this being of great importance to the story Parvana tells, giving a strong fantasy atmosphere to these sections.
Overall, The Breadwinner is a powerful, important film that once again shows how talented Cartoon Studio is. Having this film be headed by women at the key creative stages gives the film a respectful atmosphere throughout and shows the care that Cartoon Saloon made in making sure that this was a woman’s story in every sense of the phrase. All of the animators, editors, designers, everyone who helped create the visual brilliance of this film needs to be praised as highly as possible. This is a film that we needed to come out at this time and if you get the chance, you need to see it.
My Rating: 5/5