While most of the accolades for animation tend to be hoovered up by bigger studios like America’s Pixar and Japan’s Studio Ghibli, it’s important to note that there are a few smaller independents doing incredible work out there – and Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon is certainly one of the finest. What’s more, they deserve all the plaudits going for having the sheer guts to tackle this difficult and heartrending tale of everyday survival.
Set in Kabul in 2001, when the Taliban were exercising total control over the war-ravaged city, The Breadwinner, based on a novel by Deborah Ellis, tells the story of Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry), an 11 year old girl faced with a tough decision. When her father, a crippled war veteran, is imprisoned for the unspeakable crime of possessing books, his wife and two daughters find themselves in an impossible situation. Women are not allowed to leave their homes unless accompanied by a man, so the most basic tasks – shopping, fetching water, going for medicine – are now forbidden to them. Trapped in their house, they face possible starvation. In desperation, Parvana cuts off her long hair, dons the clothes that belonged to her deceased brother, Sulayman and heads out into a hostile and dangerous world to try and make ends meet. Meanwhile, she is determined to visit the prison where she knows her father is being held captive – and, each evening, in order to take the family’s mind off their sorrows, she tells her little brother, Zaki, a made-up story about a boy’s heroic quest.
It’s hard to convey just how powerful and heart-wrenching The Breadwinner is. The animation is beautifully done, the simply-rendered characters managing to convey so much with every expression – and there’s a wonderful juxtaposition between the grim reality of Parvana’s daily life and the more whimsically-animated sequences that illustrate extracts from her regular storytelling sessions. The family’s story arc is suffused with an almost overpowering melancholy and there are scenes of harsh brutality here, that manage to be all the more effective for being told so economically – be warned, this really isn’t a film for younger children, who may find much of the content disturbing.
Director Norma Twomey has done an incredible job marshalling the talents of the hundreds of animators who worked on this and the way the film builds to a compelling and pulse-quickening climax is just one of its many strengths. The only disappointing thing for me is watching it in a cinema where only a few people have bothered to turn up to see it. Please take the time to catch this wonderful film on the big screen, where it looks absolutely ravishing. Not only is it a considerable artistic achievement, it’s also a powerful and important story from the world’s recent history.