The Breadwinner follows a young girl posing as a boy to feed her family and free her father from prison
When a book is adapted into a film it can often feel rushed and oversimplified. However, The Breadwinner, based on Canadian author Deborah Ellis’ young adult novel of the same name, finds visual creativity and new meaning.
The animated story, produced by Hollywood superstar Angelina Jolie, follows Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) an 11-year-old girl who lives with her family in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2001. Her father, a teacher who lost his leg in the civil war, earns a small living by selling items and writing letters in the marketplace. Within 15 minutes of the beginning of the film, the viewer is immediately subjected to the rampant violence against women in Afghanistan. Parvana, her sister, and her mother are forced to hide from society, cover their skin, and have a male escort them outside of their home.
Parvana’s father tells stories of a simpler time when he truly felt peace even if it was for a brief moment. Each of her father’s (and soon her own) stories in the film is told with minimalist, but stylized mythical imagery, adding to the ocular splendour the film works hard to uphold.
The animation beautifully paints the physical and cultural setting of Kabul. We have bustling street bazaars, water-coloured mosques, and mountains and deftly drawn character designs full of emotion. But, tensions are high with war drawing near so, this beautiful world suddenly turns quite bleak and dark.
After an altercation with some local Taliban men, Parvana’s father is taken away to prison leaving her and her family to fend for themselves. Parvana and her mother attempt to walk to the prison and plea for the father’s release, but are soon stopped by a wicked man who eventually beats Parvana’s mother off-screen.
After Parvana and her mother return home, Parvana decides to cut her hair and pose as a boy, becoming the faux patriarch of her family.
She literally becomes “The Breadwinner.” The plot is simple enough for a child to understand (Parvana works for food and saves money to free her father) but underneath the vivid imagery, lies a more complex story.
Parvana is shown a new world under her deceptive male eyes. She runs into her friend Shauzia (who also disguises herself as a boy) and begins to do odd jobs to earn money. While she works with Shauzia, she realizes that as a boy, she has the freedom to do anything she wants says. Shauzia quickly summarizes by saying “When you’re a boy, you can go anywhere.”
As Parvana wrestles with the daunting task of freeing her father from prison she tells the fairy tale of a boy who attempts to save his village from the vicious beast like “Elephant King.” This is where the film runs into brief moments of trouble. The story is clearly a metaphor for Parvana’s task, but at times, the deeper meaning runs into a wall. While visually impressive, the tale within a tale becomes confusing and at times tedious.
The story also falls on a few Western tropes with almost every Islamic man being cruel, and heartless. It’s a departure from the novel and maybe not the best choice.
Still, the climactic and somewhat chaotic ending of the film leaves the viewer hungering for a resolution while the overused tropes completely disintegrate. We are left with a human tale and almost journalistic account of the sometimes abhorrent life in Afghanistan for a woman.
The film is a perfect representation of what an animated film can do—showing life from a different visual perspective. While many current animated films seem to talk down to the audience (I’m looking at you Emoji Movie and Despicable Me 1, 2, and 3,) The Breadwinner may make you question your morality and complacency with Western life.
Fri., Dec. 15 – Tue., Dec. 26