After watching three films on day three of this year’s London Film Festival, Callum Petch coincidentally watched four films on day four, including Big Fish & Begonia (page 2), The Final Year (page 3), Saturday Church (page 4) and…
STARRING: Saara Chaudry, Laara Sadiq, Shaista Latif
DIRECTOR: Nora Twomey
WRITERS: Anita Doron, Deborah Ellis
Day four of the Festival unleashed The Breadwinner upon me, as if the everything so far was all about building my anticipation and appreciation levels up fully enough so that, when an excellent film came along, I’d recognise its excellency instantly.
In fact, and at the risk of indulging in exactly the kind of festival-bubble hyperbole that can unfairly overhype great films once viewed outside of the festival, I will honestly be amazed if I see a film better than The Breadwinner throughout the rest of this fortnight. Once the credits started rolling, I had the exact same reaction I did when I first saw Persepolis; this gut feeling that I had just experienced one of the best animated features I had ever laid eyes on, but not quite yet wanting to attach that label to it in the off-chance that said feeling faded in the days following that viewing. With Persepolis, that feeling did not subside, and I trust my gut enough to believe that it won’t go away for The Breadwinner, either. What Cartoon Saloon – the Irish animation studio responsible for Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells – and director Nora Twomey have created here, an adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ acclaimed 2000 Children’s novel, is nothing short of a masterpiece. A raw, emotional, beautiful film in every possible sense of the word.
Much like Persepolis, The Breadwinner confronts us with the oppressive, misogynistic life of a young girl living in constantly vulnerable war-torn region that chose to run into the arms of a force that would conflate the powers of a hateful interpretation of religion, and those of the state as one and the same. This is Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, a place where religion is not preached as a source of comforting hope and inspiration, but abused as a weapon of fear and control. Where the warped misreadings of its teachings are absolute law, fuelled by anger and deliberately sowing division between those at risk of punishments for sins – which are numerous and harmless, yet have retributions of extensive violence and abuse visited upon anyone who would engage in them – and those for whom this dynamic has been a source of a power, however scrappy it may be, that they refuse to let go of. Everybody is suffering, but the ruthless masculine control of the Taliban, which almost literally spits in the face of people some used to consider friends due to their weakened physical and economic state, is perfectly happy to leave those suffering to die in pits that are not of their own making.
Death is all around the family of Parvana (Saara Chaudry), who is the middle child of her parents, former writer Fattema (Laara Sadiq) and former teacher Nurullah (Ali Badshah), the latter of whom lost his leg fighting in one of the many wars that Afghanistan has played host to over its turbulent existence. Yet her family keep on fighting to survive anyway, to make enough money that they can dream of a better life, that they might be able to bicker like a normal family, that Parvana can become a woman rather than a girl. But when Nurullah is arrested by the Taliban for harbouring unauthorised books, Parvana’s family is forced to confront the prospect of death head-on, since not only is their means of income gone, they are also unable to leave the house or buy food and water full stop (since Taliban law strictly forbids women to be in public without their husband or father). This is when Parvana gets the idea to cut off most of her hair and try to pass as a boy in order to keep providing for her family whilst they wait for news on her father and a possible way out of the country.
And it’s that central act of selfless compassion that forms the beating heart of The Breadwinner. The idea that, even in the middle of this crushing and soulless oppression, there are still those who are willing to look around and try to alleviate the suffering of others, however much they can. That there are those who can form connections and friendships, crafting a support system that allows one to dream and hope again. Parvana finds hers in Razaq (Kawa Ada), whom she first meets when he taps her services to read a letter informing him that somebody he knew was the casualty of a roadside bomb, and in old school friend Shauzia (Soma Bhatia), who took the same initiative as Parvana but with the end goal of making enough money to run away from her abusive father to a beach somewhere. Plus, there’s still the rest of Parvana’s family, who try to help shoulder her burden of being the family’s sole provider despite still only being a child.
So they tell stories. Throughout the film, we catch more and more brief passages of a story being told by Parvana about a boy questing to rescue his village’s harvest seeds from an evil elephant god who lives on the mountain with his fearsome jackals. She’s primarily telling this story to the family’s infant son, but she also later relates part of it to Shauzia as they hide out from a Taliban patrol, who keeps trying to change bleaker parts of the story to happier outcomes. Her mother takes over for a stretch after Parvana has a particularly hard day, whilst the arrival of war over the horizon leads to Parvana reciting the story to herself with no-one else around. It is stories like these that give those like Parvana the strength to go on, the hope that things can get better, that this evil can be overcome, and that one need not sacrifice their love and compassion in order to do do; all, as it is eventually revealed, by reconciling with the ugly and tragic past instead of using it as fuel for further hatred and anger.
I worry that I may run out of superlatives to describe The Breadwinner with. This is just an utterly astonishing achievement of storytelling. The characters are all wonderful, the voice performances are across the board excellent, the visual design that Cartoon Saloon have been refining since Kells is almost perfected here – including a brilliant digression into paper-puppetry for the story segments, which also manage to serve as an outlet for the kinds of fantasy visuals that the film otherwise refrains from engaging in – and the boarding! Oh, the boarding! I haven’t seen an animated feature that looks this indescribably beautiful since I first saw The Prince of Egypt back in 2014 (even though that film was released in 1999 hush) and, just like that example, you could hang any random frame of this film in an art gallery anywhere on the planet and you would hear no objections from any sane person with taste.
Every time I’ve thought about this film today since I saw it, I’ve started welling up uncontrollably all over again, just like I did with Arrival last year. I sincerely do not know what a film playing at this festival could do to top The Breadwinner, it’s just so much better than almost any film I’ve seen all year, cinema or no. I am going to remember where I was when I first saw this, and if Studio Canal has any sense they will push this thing to the moon and back into every cinema they possibly can.