Based on the novel by Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner uses animation to tell the story of being a girl in Taliban-controlled Kabul, Afghanistan. The animation style is deceptively flat and simple, much like many current children’s TV shows look, but the story told by these characters is difficult even for an adult to swallow. I’ll admit that the movie got uncomfortably real and sad for me at times.
The Breadwinner is about Parvana, a young girl living in Kabul with her father, mother, older sister, and baby brother. The story opens when Parvana and her father, a former schoolteacher who has lost a leg in the war, are confronted by a former student who has joined the Taliban in the market. Shortly after, her father is arrested and thrown into prison, leaving the rest of the family in a dire situation since women are not allowed to leave their homes without a male chaperone. Parvana quickly learns how much more difficult the family’s life becomes without her father around as she struggles to purchase food at the market without a male chaperone and is unsafe even fetching water from the local well. This comes to a head when she and her mother attempt to go to the prison to inquire about her father, and her mother returns home battered and bruised. Again, the animation softens the visual blow that this conflict and violence against women really is, perhaps to the detriment of the viewer in making it easier to digest.
The turning point comes when Parvana decides to cut her hair and assume the identity of a boy instead. She wears the clothes of her deceased older brother and finds it significantly easier to purchase food unsupervised, fetch water, and even earn money by selling things and pulling odd jobs with her friend Shauzia, who has also disguised herself as a boy. Parvana’s story runs in parallel with a story she is telling her brother, which is animated in a papercut/puppet style, richly colored and textured. While she has a new friend and newfound independence, things are not improving and there is foreshadowing of things getting worse: fighter jets flying overhead and increased Taliban presence in the streets. The ending of the movie feels a bit rushed, even with Parvana’s story within her story, but it’s an incredibly gratifying and emotionally satisfying conclusion, with her mother taking a stand and a stranger showing her kindness at great personal risk. Still, with what we know about what Afghanistan is like and what the circumstances are for Parvana and her family, it’s hard to feel complete relief knowing they are not in for a happy-ever-after.
The Breadwinner tells an important story, and in 2017, it is important for featuring Afghan girls and women with depth and dimensions, which we don’t often see in American media. And in an age where whitewashing is somehow still a thing, it’s refreshing to know that the voice actors are all Asian/Arab and that the music was composed by Afghan musicians. I am really glad that Angelina Jolie lent her power to producing this lovely film.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5