The Breadwinner, from Irish director Nora Twomey (I love Song of the Sea), is a rich, vibrant tapestry following the small footsteps of a girl in Kabul during the Taliban reign. Purposefully assigned to the Femme Filmmakers Festival alongside the 1926 Lotte Reiniger film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the two films are near-essential companion pieces. Perhaps it was a silly question to ask Twomey, if she were inspired by this movie.
“Absolutely.” the director obviously replied “Those films are absolutely influential for me. Reiniger is in some ways forgotten as a pioneer of animation. The Adventures of Prince Ahmed is the oldest surviving animated feature film.” The comparisons to The Breadwinner are natural, and flattering for either party – such similar brilliance went into some of the story scenes, or the the camels circling the globe.
“Beautiful, intricate nature of her composition, the simplicity and complexity in all of her films. Just absolutely incredible.” Here’s hoping we can plug a damn good double bill in this year’s online festival. “If I could get one ounce of the feeling that she could put across in her films, in my entire film, I’d be happy. It’s an honor to be alongside that credible filmmaker.”
The flourishing animation in The Breadwinner is a pleasure for the eyes, even in the tough, heart-rendering circumstances the characters face. Our heroine, 12 year-old Parvana, is yelled at early on for shooing a dog away, apparently it is unacceptable to draw attention to herself. “I really didn’t want to look at anybody in the film in a kind of right or wrong perspective.” Twomey told me, on the notion of assembling the story. “If anything, I just wanted to be as sympathetic as I could be, and to try and encourage that within my team.”
The Breadwinner is based on the Deborah Ellis book, written with children in mind. The film’s director was not aware of the book, until one of the Canadian producers contacted Twomey after being impressed by The Secret of Kells. They had the rights to the book, and were very interested in working with her. “I wasn’t actively really looking to direct anything. But I read the book in an evening. I loved the way Deborah wrote for young people. She doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter. She doesn’t portray characters in a way that’s perfect, or saintly, or anything like that. These were real people.”
So while reading the book, I wondered if Twomey could see it as a film, like perhaps it came alive from the pages. “I could see the film when I read it. And a child, no matter where they were from, or their circumstances, they would be able to identify with the character of Parvana.” The Breadwinner does certainly look at troubled times through the eyes of a child, a carefully carved story encapsulating an innocence, but also an unquenchable spirit.
“I wanted to find ways to amplify right down to a child’s perspective.” Twomey explains. The main plot of the film sees Parvana disguise herself as a boy. “To just see what it’s like for one little girl, who just wants to get food for her family, who just wants her dad to be okay. She just wants her little brother to have his dinner that evening.”
And it’s a poignant transition for the 12 year-old. The Breadwinner has an array of moving moments, when she starts to cut her hair short, and her sister helps, so she can look like a boy. I mean, as a girl, she can’t even buy apples. “Parvana has her colorful scarf, which is kind of popping. And you see these incredible, intense eyes that she has. That does not letting her disappear into the background, even though she wants to be invisible.”
Parvana’s father is locked up for, well, doing very little. Losing a leg in the war is hardly attracting sympathy from the scoundrel who taunts them both early on. A former student of the father’s no less – but he is now a member of the Taliban, declaring it like a medal of honor. It is frightful and upsetting, that this is the way it is.
“I began working on this film, reaching out to women, at the Afghan women’s Organization, for example. And spoke to people who had lived through different decades of conflict in Afghanistan, people who have different religious perspectives, different political perspectives.” the director tells me just some of the hands-on research that went into portraying these times. “In ways it was quite simple, in other ways it was really complex. But every time I found things overwhelming on the film, especially when we were trying to craft the story, I had the people who shared their stories with me, and really helped me.”
And what of that music. Wow. A wonderful collaboration between Mychael Danna and Jeff Danne, the music is a perfect, fitting the backdrop of the film’s story seamlessly. “They kind of have their own vision. To suit the the emotional content, the cultural content of the film they are working on. With The Breadwinner, they brought on musicians from around the world to help form this wonderful soundscape in the film. They handled it beautifully. I couldn’t believe my luck when they said yes to it.”
The subtle score contributes to the tension that seems inbuilt into the power of the animation to tell a story. “We worked with an art director for several months, to try to experiment with it, until it feels right.” Twomey responds to my awe of the colors and tones used through the picture. “There was an Afghan American artist who helped with the screenplay quite a bit. It was a bit of a dilemma when we were making this up, because it won’t be the same, Kabul has been rebuilt since the years of the Taliban rule.”
Those colors depict the midday sun and the nighttime dark, with hefty use of oranges and browns devouring us in the heat and the dust, and then as the moon shines off in the distance, the faded blues offer a kind of peaceful melancholy. The shadows and the silhouettes against vivid colors and motion. The animation slightly varies too in style when a story is told. The visuals capture the glow of the fire, the sun, the bright red creature in one of the stories. A circle enveloping a figure, becomes the drum accompanying the scene, and then its a huge crystal ball. As I continue to hail the world of animation, I can’t imagine the work that goes into such a feat.
“It took about five years. From that first outline, all the way through to the final animation, it takes a long time. But honestly, for a project like The Breadwinner, that time is absolutely invaluable. It never feels like too much, usually because you can keep putting the film out there. You can keep getting people’s opinions on it, making sure that people can contribute, that you can fix mistakes.”
“The making of the film was like educating myself about that kind of time. The complexity of the issues, the conflict there. How the Taliban came to power, and how we are implicated here in the West as well. It was about all of these things. It for me that was incredibly eye-opening. And it is something that I continue to try to understand.”
Watching The Breadwinner is kind of an educational. If I want to teach my children about that side of the world. This is probably the best way to do it actually. “Some children are very sensitive, it depends on the child really. We recommend from the age of about ten. We tested the film when we were in the filmmaking process. Often times, it was the teachers and parents coming out of the screening that had red eyes. They were really affected by the film. And the children, they just take things as they are.”
The Breadwinner has these child audience cues throughout. The process of telling stories is almost a distraction. Parvana, too, has to provide such comfort to her little brother – an elaborate tale about monsters that scared off the donkeys and ate the crops. Its pretty heartbreaking stuff. “We’ve always been interested in trying to layer our stories in a way where children can get something out of it. The Breadwinner doesn’t really answer important questions, but it does ask them.”
And I couldn’t end the inspiring conversation with Nora Twomey without congratulating her on the Academy Award nomination earlier this year. “For a film of this budget, the Academy Award nomination is absolutely ginormous. It’s a good way for your film to get more publicity than you could ever expect for that small an independent film.” Well, in my humble opinion, it should have won.
“For something like The Breadwinner to be recognized, critically, and with that kind of attention that an Academy Award or Golden Globe nomination can bring, just means that people hear about your film, and people go and see it at the end of the day. That’s what it’s all about.” Very true. And we here at Filmotomy want to shout about it.
With The Breadwinner hitting UK streaming platforms on Monday, its the perfect time to publicize such a great movie. “This is the opportunity that you know festivals and streaming services offer. When it’s very hard to get into cinemas. It’s very hard for exhibitors to take a risk on independent films.” Well, no doubt many more folk will have seen The Breadwinner in the UK now its just about available. In the meantime, I am going to pre-order the DVD, which hits the shelves in two weeks.