When Nora Twomey first showed her new film to audiences, the reaction was surprising. is a children’s animation about an 11-year-old girl named Parvana growing up in Afghanistan under the Taliban. It contains harrowing scenes of abduction, imprisonment, execution, warfare, and brutal repression of women. Twomey discovered that it was the adults who were most upset. Teachers and parents in the audience found it almost too emotional; younger viewers, less so.
“Oftentimes adults can get really traumatised thinking about what children are experiencing watching a film but the actual experience can be something completely different,” says Twomey. “If you have a child protagonist in a film, the children in the audience take their cue from them. If the child in the film can take what’s going on, they can lead the children in the audience.”
As well as proving that you don’t need talking animals and candy-coloured fantasy worlds to get children engaged, The Breadwinner succeeds where so many attempts to convey modern conflicts such as in other forms – live-action drama, documentary, war films, even comedy – have failed. In fact, it suggests that, in the right hands, animation could be the ideal medium for the job.
“It allows you under the door,” says Nora Twomey. “A door that people might shut otherwise. It allows you to access different parts of people’s empathy. If I watched Parvana go through some of the more challenging things she does in live action, I’d feel like I would emotionally disconnect from her to protect myself. I wouldn’t want to go those places with her. Animation can lend you tools to stop audiences from doing that.”
When I tell stories … I let them explore the darker areas of life but in a responsible way, where they feel supported
is one such example: set in a care home full of troubled children, it dealt with themes of death, alcoholism and abuse. Or Marjane Satrapi’s , which detailed the film-maker’s rebellious youth in Iran under a similarly repressive regime to that depicted in The Breadwinner. Even with higher-budget studio fare, animation can smuggle a great deal under the door, as with movies like Pixar’s (which addressed teenage mental health), (which imagined an environmental apocalypse), or (whose life-to-death montage has wrung tears from many a grownup viewer). It is also hardly a coincidence that the makers of The Breadwinner were primarily female. It is very much a story about gender: under the Taliban – still estimated to control 10 to 20% of Afghanistan – women are not allowed to work, drive, go to school or even shop without a male chaperone. So when Parvana’s father is imprisoned, leaving her mother and older sister housebound, she cuts off her hair and disguises herself as a boy. Her new identity brings new freedoms, but there is no glossing over the grimness of the situation.
“As a storyteller, I am first and foremost a mother,” says the 46-year-old Twomey, “so when I tell stories, be they at bedtime for my two boys or in a cinema screen, I try to let them explore some of the darker areas of life but in a responsible way, where they feel supported.”
Twomey is co-founder of Irish animation house Cartoon Saloon, whose two previous features, The Secret of Kells and were both Celtic-themed fantasies. was originally a novel, by Canadian author . It was adapted for the screen by Hungarian-Canadian writer Anita Doron and its producers included Angelina Jolie.
The premise is not as fanciful as it sounds, explains Ellis, who based her book on real-life interviews with Afghan refugees. There is even an Afghan term for it: , which translates as “dressed as a boy”. Ellis became involved with a support group for Afghan women when the took control of the country in 1996: “I felt that one of the things I could do that would be useful would be to go over to the camps in Pakistan and collect some stories, so we could find out a bit more about who these women were, what they went through, how they felt about it, how they dealt with it, and most importantly how we could be helpful to them.”
It is unlikely a male writer would have had the same access. The refugee camps were largely a world of women and children, who invited Ellis into their tents, gave her tea and told her their stories. Published in 2000, The Breadwinner became a children’s bestseller, and has generated three sequel novels. Ellis has gone on to write other similar stories of children in adverse conditions: AIDS orphans in Malawi, for example (in 2004’s The Heaven Children) or Colombian children caught up in the cocaine trade (2006’s I Am A Taxi). Money from the sales of the Breadwinner books goes towards women’s projects in Afghanistan, such as training women teachers and supporting girls after they have left orphanages. In an ideal world, it would be Afghan film-makers telling stories such as The Breadwinner, but the Taliban banned film-making outright, and subsequent attempts to restart the industry have faltered. Intriguingly, the first film to come out of post-Taliban Afghanistan was Siddiq Barmak’s 2002 drama , which also focused on a girl who dresses as a boy to support her family. Iranian director Majid Majidi also made Baran, in 2001, about an Afghan immigrant in Tehran. Around the same time, Iran’s Mohsen Makhmalbaf and his daughter Samira also both made films centred on Afghan women: Mohsen’s Kandahar, followed a Canadian immigrant returning to the country to search for her sister; Samira’s At Five in the Afternoon, centred on a young woman who goes to school against her father’s wishes.
Many of these films made an international impact, but local activity seems to have waned in recent years, leaving the field open for US-made movies like The Kite Runner, or misjudged comedies like Tina Fey’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Bill Murray’s Rock The Kasbah. Ellis did not visit until after she had written The Breadwinner, Twomey did not go there at all, and the story is set 18 years ago, during which time much has changed in Kabul. But both took great pains to get things right, which primarily involved talking to a lot of people. “It takes over a year to create a storyboard for an animated feature,” says Twomey. “During that time we had hundreds of discussions with Afghan people from different areas, perspectives, ethnic groups, people who left at different times, so you can get all those discussions inform the film. I was fairly open all the way along to being corrected.”
There’s so much that’s universal: we don’t want to be beaten, we want economic power, we want food and stable housing
Another key informant was Jolie, who set up girls’ schools in Kabul over a decade ago, and was an encouraging presence throughout the process. If the result is a sort of generalised, non-specific portrayal, that’s all the better, says Twomey. “With animation you are always abstracting: you’re abstracting the human face, abstracting the performances, the design, what audiences pay attention to. You’re not being absolutely specific.” Even Parvana’s ethnicity is deliberately broad, says Twomey, which means people from Afghanistan’s many ethnicities can identify with her, not to mention foreign audiences.
Deborah Ellis agrees, saying the aim was to find a common humanity rather than being scrupulously specific: “There’s so much that’s universal: we don’t want to be beaten by people, we want to have access to some kind of economic power so that we can make choices about what we want to do with our lives, we want enough food and stable housing, and we want to be able to raise our children safely to adulthood. And if you throw in there the possibility of being able to explore our interests, develop our skills – that’s pretty universal stuff.”
The other universal theme is being female in a male-dominated world. Life in Ireland or Canada might not quite compare to Afghanistan, but in film-making especially, the gender imbalances are still glaring. “As a female film director I get asked every day how it’s different to being a male film director,” says Twomey. “What’s interesting to me is, it’s a constant reminder that I am a female. I get up in the morning and I don’t see myself as female; I just see myself as Norah. And I very much wanted Parvana to have that same thing: it doesn’t matter whether she has long hair or short hair, whether she is wearing a dress or her brother’s clothes, she is still who she is, and that goes beyond her gender. How she’s perceived outside of that is a different matter. Girls no matter where they are respond to that idea, because we all see ourselves from the inside out. We don’t see the boxes others want to place us inside.”