Inside and Outside: The Breadwinner
“The Taliban is near our house. If we go to school, they will kill us. If the government can provide security, we will be very interested to go to school.”
— Paimanah, 12, Kandahar, July 2016
“Stay inside where you belong.” Again and again in
The Breadwinner, 11-year-old Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) is reminded of her place. A girl in 2001 Kabul, she’s surrounded by war and threatened by the Taliban — or more precisely, men and boys who take up the language of the Taliban to intimidate. One of these boys tells Parvana he’s joined in order to “fight the enemies of Islam.” When he spots her outside, on the street offering writing and reading services with her father, the boy calls her an enemy, looming over her and insisting — to her father because he can’t bring himself to speak to her directly — that “She should be at home, not displaying herself in the market.”
From the first moments in Nora Twomey’s film it’s clear that Parvana has little regard for such antics, such naming and such fear. Her father Nurullah (Ali Badshah), a former teacher who lost a leg in the war, does his best to help Parvana remain a child for as long as possible: “I want you playing and telling stories,” her father says. “Stories remain in our hearts even when all else is gone.” With all the turmoil in her world, young Parvana is already skeptical. “I’m too old for that,” she sighs. “What’s the use?”
She will learn the use, of course, in this animated film that is not just for children, that exemplifies the political value of art and the moral imperative of storytelling. For Parvana’s expectations and her family are turned inside out when Nurullah is imprisoned. With her mother Fattema (Laara Sadiq) ailing and her older brother Sulayman killed by a mine before the film begins, Parvana faces the task of feeding her family, including her older sister Soraya (Shaista Latif) and little brother Zaki. To do so, Parvana poses as a boy, a decision rendered in an affecting scene: as Soraya stands behind her to cut Parvana’s hair, the shot cuts from Parvana’s face in a mirror to her long dark locks falling to the floor. The moment is at once thrilling and frightening, as she takes a risk that could easily prove fatal but is, at the same time, in another, more fantastic dimension, something of a child’s adventure.
Turning this mix into an animated film takes Nurullah’s faith in stories seriously: if kids everywhere might share this story, and understand the risks as well as the aspirations, they might become part of a next generation, looking ahead, beyond the limits Parvana faces. Like Siddiq Barmak’s 2003 film
Osama, The Breadwinner presents the challenge to the girl who is passing in vivid detail. In both films, the difference between outside and inside, between public and private lives, is a difference between life and death, between hope and fear, between telling stories and remaining silent.
But the animation takes The Breadwinner to another dimension, as Parvana begins to pursue and then to imagine her lost older brother’s perils, her incarcerated father’s hopes, and her own resolve to overcome the many obstacles before her, the men around the corner, the women who are righteously afraid and also, those who believe in their own pasts. These gorgeous sequences are at once provocative and rousing, as Parvana tests herself like any Disney hero might, resisting her sister’s doubts, daring herself to be braver than she first thinks she can be, but in a context with complicated, critical stakes.
© Cartoon Saloon (IMDB)
Parvana’s story also speaks to issues that most adults would find harrowing: her mother is beaten nearly to death in front of her, and no one knows what’s become of her father once he’s dragged off in the night. Still, she learns valuable lessons, for instance, that “When you’re a boy, you can go anywhere you like.” As well, in her friend Shauzia (Soma Chhaya), also posing as a boy, she discovers a remarkable friend and clever ally, someone with whom she shares concerns and some solutions.
At the same time, Parvana creates art and energy in the stories she tells Zaki, inspiring and distracting him as the movie takes on another set of possibilities, in community, history, and incredible beauty. Dreaming of her brother Sulayman, she finds herself as a boy with particular freedoms and as a girl who sees what boys can do. Here the film’s fantasy — colorful, lovely, expansive — serves a few purposes, not only showing Parvana’s imaginative courage, but also reminding you that the limits she faces are not unique to Kabul or the past. Girls everywhere face challenges, dangers, and restrictions. Parvana’s quest becomes increasingly circuitous and difficult as she looks to save her family, rescue her father, and remember her brother. But still, she persists. Finding herself outside and inside, Parvana offers all of us a way forward.