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Irish Filmmaker Brings Afghan Hardship To Western Movie Screens In The Breadwinner


FILE: An Afghan girl laborer works in a cotton field on the outskirts of the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.

The Breadwinner, a new, critically acclaimed animation film that depicts the heroic struggles of a young Afghan girl under hard-line Taliban rule, is a testament to the desire for storytelling "when our world tips upside-down," says its award-winning Irish filmmaker.

Adapted from Canadian author Deborah Ellis's bestselling children's novel of the same name, it tells the story of 11-year-old Parvana, who disguises herself as a boy to support her family after her father is wrongfully imprisoned.

Undaunted by oppression and the horrors of war around her, the heroine embarks on a quest to free her father. To console her younger siblings and find refuge from her struggles, Parvana invents a fable about a courageous boy who stands up to the so-called Elephant King.

"As the film is set around 2001, all of the characters in this film are a product of decades of war, each character deals with their challenges in different ways," director Nora Twomey, whose other credits include the Academy Award-nominated The Secret Of Kells and Song Of The Sea, tells RFE/RL. "The film explores the idea of transformation, how small actions, or words, have the potential to become a catalyst for change."

WATCH: Official Trailer For The Breadwinner

During its brutal rule of Afghanistan from 1996-2001, the fundamentalist Taliban banned women and girls from attending school, working outside the home, or even venturing outdoors unless accompanied by a male relative.

The Breadwinner has earned plaudits and been well received by audiences around the world since its November release, and has been nominated for the Best Motion Picture, Animated, at the Golden Globes.

Oscar-winning actor-director Angelina Jolie is an executive producer.

Historical Affinity

Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland when Northern Ireland was engulfed in war and sectarianism, Twomey says she feels an affinity for Afghans who have endured nearly four decades of almost uninterrupted bloodshed.

"As an Irish woman, having grown up as Northern Ireland experienced conflict and reconciliation, I have some small understanding of a few of the issues facing Afghan people," she says.

"Afghans, much like the Irish, are a nation of storytellers," she adds. "I don't think that's a coincidence. The Irish experienced occupation, famine, and war yet the storyteller was a welcome visitor to any house they came to. When our world tips upside-down, we all look to stories to try to make sense of what is going on inside of us."

Twomey says her film is not just an appeal for women's rights or a critique of misogyny in Afghanistan.

"By telling a story like this through animation, there is the potential to create empathy," says Twomey, "whether that be empathy between the genders or between different parts of the world."

Irish filmmaker Nora Twomey (file photo)
Irish filmmaker Nora Twomey (file photo)

Twomey has said she hopes the film will prompt discussions about the West's involvement in wars in the Muslim world and evoke compassion for immigrants and refugees amid growing anti-Islam and anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and the United States.

Twomey and her Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon studios gained international fame with The Secret Of Kells, which she co-directed.

The Breadwinner marks her solo directing debut with a feature-length film.

"I believe animation can allow an audience to identify more closely with a character," she says. "If you express a character with a few drawn lines, that character could be you or me. The more detail you add, the more 'other' it becomes. There is a language created between the characters, their environment, reality, and the animator which says something new."

Red Flags

The Breadwinner might have raised some red flags for international audiences increasingly aware of cultural appropriation. It is set in Afghanistan but made mostly by Westerners and based largely on the accounts of Ellis, the book's activist author, who interviewed Afghan refugees in Pakistan in the 1990s.

But Twomey, who has not visited Afghanistan, says that at every stage Afghans were involved in crafting the sensibility of the film. She says it is based on the interviews conducted by Ellis for her novel and the testimonies of Afghan members of her cast.

"We found moments that ring true, like the dread of a knock at the door, the smell of fresh bread, [or] the VHS tapes strung up on electricity poles as a warning against media of any kind," Twomey says. "These moments in the film come from Afghan memory, and it seems fitting that these moments are translated through the hands of artists and animators to reflect back these words in an empathetic way."

The Breadwinner is not the first film to delve into the issue of bacha posh -- literally "dressed like a boy" in Dari, the form of Persian spoken in Afghanistan. The device of a girl dressing as a boy was central to the award-winning film Osama (2003), directed by Siddiq Barmak; the Disney animated film Mulan (1998); and even Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

"Parvana and Osama are very different characters, who undergo different journeys, with different relationships," says Twomey. "With The Breadwinner, I wanted to make a film that was accessible to young adults and also one that leaves our audience with hope. Hope in the form of Parvana herself."

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