Some of the world's most adventurous cinema is being created outside the live-action field, in the world of animated film. 'The Breadwinner' is the latest offering from Cartoon Saloon, the Irish-based studio behind 'Song of the Sea' (2014) and 'The Secret of Kells' (2009), which were both Oscar-nominated in the best animated feature category.
'The Breadwinner' is another luminous wonder. It is Nora Twomey's solo directorial feature debut although she also worked on the previous two films. I rushed to see it because I was entranced by 'Song of the Sea,' first viewed on a tiny screen on a long-haul flight to Canada, then on a DVD back home, and finally in the cinema. Its tale of a disappeared mother, grieving father and two lost children is rooted in Celtic folklore's world of selkies, faeries and wicked witches, but it is anything but fey. Its glorious hues of sapphire and emerald recall Studio Ghibli's 2013 'The Tale of Princess Kaguya,' with its two worlds of fantasy and reality welded together by a lovely musical score.
Equally compellingly, the Japanese studio's Isao Takahata and Hayaao Miyazaki used animation in 'Grave of the Fireflies' (1988) and 'The Wind Rises' (2014) respectively, to address memories of wartime Japan that would be too harrowing to watch in a live-action film. Likewise, the pared down storytelling and bold hand-drawn style of 'The Breadwinner' render its difficult subject matter bearable as well as accessible even to a young audience.
The central character of Canadian author Deborah Ellis's children's book on which 'The Breadwinner' is based, is Parvana, an 11-year-old girl growing up under Taliban rule in 2001 Afghanistan. Her father Nurullah, an out of work teacher who lost a leg in the Russian war, is wrongfully arrested at the market square in Kabul where he and Parvana are selling some possessions to make ends meet.
A roaming gang of Taliban youth, including the film's worst bully, a past pupil of her father's who is later revealed to be just a scared boy, command her to stay indoors because it is forbidden for a female to be outside unaccompanied by a male. Undaunted, she cuts her hair, dons her brother's clothes and disguises herself as a boy. A tragedy concerning her missing brother Sulayman is hinted at throughout the film – a mystery that plays an important role in the film's structure. In the absence of her father and brother, only Parvana can provide for her mother, older sister and baby brother, and she must find her father before war breaks out again.
In one harrowing scene, when Parvana sets off in disguise with her mother to try to visit her father in prison they are stopped by the Taliban, who brutally abuse her mother. We know this is happening but we do not actually see the brutality (only, later, its effects) because the camera pans away to follow Parvana continuing on her journey.
Before her father's arrest, Parvana and her father had been developing a story together about a heroic young dancing boy from legend and a 'dreadful elephant king' who terrorises a village with his ghastly red-eyed jaguars. She continues developing the story by herself, at first as a form of escapism and distraction for her baby brother, and later, when confronted with various challenges in her daily life, she elaborates the story purely in her imagination: the dancing boy has to face his past demons if he is to secure a future for his people. This parallel imaginary narrative of Parvana's struggle helps us to understand Parvana better and, as her situation gets more and more desperate, it provides her with hope.
Told in spinning cut-out animations that are drawn with the dazzling colour palette of 'The Secret of Kells,' this 'story within a story' contrasts sharply with the rest of the film's world of concrete greys and dun browns, where undulating desert is broken by the jagged lines of abandoned tanks and the only poetry in Kabul's daily life is its misty honey-hued dawns. The 'cut-outs' story also allows for a potted history of Afghanistan: 'We were scientists, philosophers and storytellers,' the film's disembodied opening voice intones, 'but we were at the edges of empires at war with each other' – thereby underlining the loss and pathos contained in a present and recent past that are saturated with misogyny and brutality.
It is hard now to remember that not so long ago, in the 1960s, there were more young women in third level education in Kabul than in some US states. A theme of repeating cycles and constant change permeates Twomey's film. Visual references to historical artifacts found in Afghanistan over the centuries infuse the screen – a reminder of the magnificence of its thousands of years of culture, and a nudge to look beyond the headlines to try to understand things a little better.
As the two storylines begin to weave together through a superb screen adaptation by the director and her screenwriter Anita Doron, the mysterious fate of the missing brother is revealed in a way that helps Parvana in her quest to reach her father. Only by facing her own past, like the dancing boy in the fable, can she achieve her goal and save her father. The film's layered mode of storytelling, where everything is not immediately obvious to every member of the audience at the same time, is ideally suited to animation. It is a form that, perhaps uniquely, allows access to the varying emotional capacities and ages that comprise a cinema audience.
All of the characters in 'The Breadwinner' are drawn with palpable tenderness (especially the baby who is rendered as a snub-nosed gurgling bundle of joy). Faces are eloquently expressive. A single line or squiggle drawn above a nose or under an eye expresses anger, fatigue or grief, miraculously capturing wordless emotions with the tiniest of details.
Jeff and Mychael Danna's lyrical score takes its cue from the film's location, blending eastern musical instruments with western rhythms and orchestrations, and moving from pieces that echo Kabul street sounds to luscious evocations of a magical story-world. All of the layered strands woven through this lovely film come together in a thrilling climax that captures Parvana's undaunted optimism. Using her voice and her intelligence to connect and empathise with people, Parvana changes the lives of all those around her, and at the end of the day, she literally moves mountains.