You expect children’s animated films to be a little sad don’t you? A little salt to balance out the sugar, enough melancholy to allow our spirits to be lifted later on. Nobody expects the death of Anna and Elsa’s parents to be the entire trade of Frozen, they’re just another dash of something in the stock before it’s reduced down to the actual plot.
The sadness of Nora Twomey’s two features to date feels aggressive, both The Secret of Kells and The Breadwinner are stories set in the ruins of destroyed worlds. Their characters live under constant threat and the fear that their best efforts are going to amount to nothing. They are about feeling trapped, isolated, and afraid. The parts of ourselves that these situations bring out while we toil for a better, freer life.
The threat here has more form than the faceless geometric Vikings of her previous venture and yet is also more intangible. It is Taliban controlled Afghanistan. Parvana, our lead, helps her father, injured in the Soviet-Afghan war, tend to his market stall. After running afoul of a short tempered government agent he is arrested. It is illegal here for women to leave the house without a male family member, he was the last they had left.
In their governmentally imposed exile from the outside world the family starts to run low. On food, on water. Parvana, only eleven, cuts her hair and dons her deceased brother’s childhood clothes. She leaves every day to make a living until their father returns. He may not.
It’s all very exciting to an eleven year old, responsibility and the knowledge that it is an implicit breaking of the rules. That moment when you learn that life ain’t governed by what’s in the rules, only what you can get away with. After the smallest transgressions suddenly everything seems possible. At that point, why not stop dreaming big, why consider life’s inevitability?
Yet the film reminds you in every single frame that the why is the world. The script, adapted by Anita Doron & Deborah Ellis from the latter’s novel makes that perfectly clear. For every moment we see Parvana able to truly embrace the freedom the situation offers her, we see the weight it inflicts on others. Her mother and sister as they wait for her, their very physicality distancing them from the world. The illiterate man she befriends, who employs her to read and write and write on his behalf and who loses his wife to an IED as he sent her out of Kabul for safety.
And the planes, the American planes that stripe the sky, crushing the population with their presence. It is not a straight out depressing tale by any means. Twomey directs the material with wit and invention. The film’s spare compositions are beautiful and when the film turns to fantasy to escape itself it adopts a marionettes, shadow puppet type feel. An affectation which beautifully describes the importance and impotence of mythology in trying times.
It is in the small moments that the film’s vision expands. Saara Chaudry and Soma Bhatia hold a real natural chill in their voices and when they are afforded time to relax, dream and banter we are allowed to find place in their feelings. There is something in the capture of those voices, placing the confidence and bravado of a child in situations unbeknown. From a western eye it feels very much like an examine your privilege movie. But message features don’t have to be bed, not when they’re being told with empathy.
If it all seems a little bleak. It kinda is. I’m sorry. That just seems to be the way the world is feeling at the moment. If you’re watching with kids, or around kids, I’d say pair it with Jafar Panahi Offside. It’s a 2006 comedy about women trying to sneak into the Iran-Japan World Cup qualifier. All poppy and vibrant. Maybe I just prefer that, maybe it’s easier to deal with all sorts of complicated emotions than the truth of worldwide societal injustice. One which diminishes and reduces everything in its wake to dust.
There’s an existential horror going on here that it is hard for the presentation to hide. It’s a kids’ film and should be watched by that audience. There’s no rationalisation to be had though, I hope they can be able to cope.
The Breadwinner is currently screening in UK cinemas.
Image courtesy of Studiocanal