The Breadwinner

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Breadwinner
"Intelligent, humane and multi-layered, The Breadwinner is a much more substantial film than its central heroic narrative might suggest."

History is full of the stories of girls who disguised themselves as boys in order to provide for their families or seek out opportunities they would otherwise have been denied in life. Some managed to keep their secrets throughout their lives. What happened to those who were caught generally doesn't bear thinking about. In modern times, this phenomenon was most prolific under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Produced by Angelina Jolie, who has campaigned internationally for the rights of girls like these, The Breadwinner tells the story of one but speaks to the stories of many.

Our heroine is Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry), daughter of a teacher and a writer who, when the story begins, are already in desperate straits, forced to sell their last few possessions to survive. Things get much worse when her father is imprisoned by the capricious regime. Without a male relative to escort them, the women risk beating, imprisonment and worse even for going outside to fetch water, let alone for going down to the marketplace. Parvana must cut off her hair and dress in her dead brother's clothes in order to save them from starvation. But doing so gives her a taste of a very different life, and it's a life she likes. It also inspires her to seek out ways of rescuing her father.

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Simply yet evocatively animated, The Breadwinner is full of small observations about the different ways men and women are treated in public spaces, many of which apply far beyond Afghan society. Parvana is surprised when she's jostled in the street and when a shopkeeper teases her; surprised also at the greater willingness of men to listen and do business with her. She loves her new freedom of movement and is reassured when she discovers that she's not the only girl living this way. But she also lives in constant fear of discovery.

Perhaps the most important freedom Parvana discovers is a new freedom of the imagination. Her changing world opens her eyes to possibility, making her resist later proffered solutions that could help the family but would further restrict her life. The film is heavily focused on the power of imagination and the importance of storytelling, both as a means of preserving identity and as a means of finding hope and pleasure in life in desperate times. Parvana's interactions with a man whose only connection to a lost loved one is a letter he can't read drives home this point, and positions literacy and the transmission of ideas at the heart of civilisation.

Intelligent, humane and multi-layered, The Breadwinner is a much more substantial film than its central heroic narrative might suggest. It's a fitting tribute to the courage of the girls who saved countless lives but it also speaks to the depth an richness of Afghan culture, ensuring that foreign viewers cannot write off its characters as the primitives frequently depicted in propaganda about the region. More than just a cypher, Parvana is an emotionally complex heroine whom children and teenagers will find easy to identify with. The result is a moving film with lasting value.

Reviewed on: 28 Nov 2017
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The Breadwinner packshot
A young girl in Afghanistan disguises herself as a boy in order to provide for her family.

Director: Nora Twomey

Writer: Anita Doron, Deborah Ellis

Starring: Saara Chaudry, Laara Sadiq, Shaista Latif, Ali Badshah, Noorin Gulamgaus, Kawa Ada, Soma Chhaya, Kanza Feris, Kane Mahon, Ali Kazmi, Reza Sholeh, Mran Volkhard

Year: 2017

Runtime: 94 minutes

Country: Canada, Ireland, Luxembourg


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