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Non-Review Review: The Breadwinner

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

Stories enrich us, stories empower us, stories sustain us.

The Breadwinner is many things. It is a beautifully animated film from Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, a worthy successor to The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, and also the first time that the company have looked beyond Irish shores for one of their feature-length releases. It is a stunning adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ novel, offering a compelling glimpse into Afghanistan as controlled by the Taliban at the turn of the millennium. It is a genuinely affecting tale of a young girl surviving in a climate that seems actively hostile to her very existence.

However, The Breadwinner is also a meditation upon the power of stories. This is not a surprise, it is very much in keeping with the aesthetics and interests of Cartoon Saloon. It is a recurring theme in their work. (As a point of comparison, Pixar Studios are invested in parental anxieties, down to the inclusion of the “Pixar Babies” in the credits of every major release.) Indeed, The Breadwinner might be seen as a spiritual successor to (or the third part of a thematic trilogy with) The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, stories about children reconnecting with the mythic history of their countries.

Indeed, this is one of the most striking and appealing aspects of The Breadwinner is the way in which it finds something universal in its very specific setting. The Breadwinner is a story very firmly anchored in one time and place, but one that should resonate with everyone.

On a purely aesthetic level, the animation in The Breadwinner is striking. It is very much in keeping with the house style of The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, but it feels more refined and ambitious. Perhaps this is down to the change in setting, with The Breadwinner finding the studio shifting its gaze from Ireland to tell a story set in the last days of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The Breadwinner creates a striking and evocative portrait of the region, both in terms of attention to detail and in capturing the more intangible atmosphere.

The version of Afghanistan presented in The Breadwinner is a stark place, a land of deserts and mountains, coloured in shades of browns and greys. It is a harsh environment for anybody to navigate, let alone the female characters at the centre of the story; mountains encircle an unforgiving desert, with only the sparsest signs of civilisation to be found on the frontier. The country is littered with relics of countless conflicts, the remains of tanks dotting the landscape and mines lurking at the side of the road. The depiction of the region is striking, haunting and beautiful in equal measure.

However, The Breadwinner also understands that there are more than just mines buried in the desert. The Breadwinner portrays Afghanistan as a country with a rich and beautiful history, albeit one that has been buried literally and figuratively over the years; whether under the tank tracks of the invaders who leave those empty husks scattered across the desert, or the heel of the Taliban government that seems determined to erase from the populace any memory of what the country once was or might be.

The Breadwinner is in some ways an excavation. The sands of the desert are harsh and unforgiving, often hiding unexploded ordinance as a reminder of how the traumas of past wars still act upon the living. However, they also suggest what the country once was, and what it could be in the hearts of its inhabitants. Repeatedly in the story, characters literally journey underground into hidden worlds; a mine filled with shining emeralds, or a temple so old that none of the children hiding in it seem to know exactly what it is.

Of course, this excavation is as much metaphorical or literal. The Breadwinner ably demonstrates the horrors and atrocities inflicted by the Taliban upon the inhabitants of the region; the beatings, the whipping, the destruction, the vindictiveness of bitter men clinging to weapons that grant them power. However, The Breadwinner suggests a more subtle form of violence committed by the Taliban, the thorough and vindictive destruction of history and knowledge. The Taliban seek to murder stories as much as they murder people.

At one point in the story, a member of the Taliban destroys a picture of a beloved family member, scattering the pieces to the wind. Parvana gathers as many pieces as she can, but finds herself forced to reconstruct the picture of her loved one with certain pieces missing. It is not enough for the Taliban to attack the family physically, they must attack the memory of the family. Similarly, the Taliban enact a ban on women reading and righting, confiscating books and punishing those who seek to share such materials; not just objective material like history or knowledge, but even stories and myths.

The Breadwinner implicitly understands what the Taliban are trying to do in trying to destroy these stories, in order to stop the sharing of these tales. The Breadwinner suggests repeatedly the power of stories. Every day, Parvana goes to the market place, promising, “Anything written, anything read.” Naturally, Parvana’s ability to write and read these stories proves vital to her survival; initially in the pragmatic sense of trying to earn enough to bribe the authorities to release a beloved family member, but later in a more spiritual sense of the bond that these stories forge between people.

The Breadwinner opens with Parvana and her father trading stories about the history of Afghanistan, the myths that inform the region’s culture and heritage. The Breadwinner suggests that it is from these stories that the people draw their strength. When Parvana finds her family in an impossible position, she navigates out of it by inventing a story about a young boy. The Breadwinner then very cleverly parallels this essential and necessary fiction with a story that Parvana tells about another boy, which reflects her life and her situation in telling ways.

Stories empower and sustain people, occasionally in a very literal sense. At one point, Parvana reads a letter to a local soldier, informing him that his wife has passed away. Assessing the note, he asks her to point out the letters that spell her name, as if those pen strokes might somehow encapsulate everything about his beloved. He practices writing her name, as if assembling the lines and curves in the right sequence and with enough detail might provide some tangible connection to the woman that he lost.

Letters make up a name, much like stories make up a life. Put in the right sequence, letters provide more than just a phonetic map of how a particular word is to be pronounced. Like musical notes structured in the right way, placed in the right order, they are a code; they unlock something much deeper and more meaningful – memories, emotions, connections. The same is true of stories. Stories are not simple random words thrown together, they are so much more. They are illuminating and enlightening. Even as fiction, they often hint at deeper truths.

The Breadwinner is a moving and powerful piece of cinema, and a celebration of the importance of narrative and the liberating power of storytelling, even in the most unforgiving of climates.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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