Parvana (Saara Chaudry) is a little girl who used to love listening to the stories her father told her, but now with life so fraught with turmoil she feels she must outgrow them, no matter the relevance to her situation that she is not accepting at the moment. She lives in Afghanistan, and those tales amounted to a history of the region with all its changing borders, tyrannical rule and war that were part and parcel of its millennia-old conflicts, but that all seems irrelevant now the Taliban are worse than any of that, casting oppression across the land. Especially for women and girls, who are so despised they are not allowed out alone, or to speak, or to do anything very much but serve men.
The Breadwinner was a 2000 book written by peace activist Deborah Ellis, largely for children to better understand the issues surrounding the crisis in Afghanistan, but it took over fifteen years for the film version to hit the big screen, from the same Irish studio that created the acclaimed Song of the Kells, and with the endorsement of Angelina Jolie onboard as an executive producer, in line with her humanitarian work. All very worthy, but good intentions don't always make for great movies and sadly, at the mere mention of a major conflict those not involved simply say "Oh dear" to and carry on with their own lives is not a guarantee of an audience in the twenty-first century.
However, if you thought you knew all you needed to about the terror in Afghanistan, then maybe giving this a go would teach you more than you necessarily expected, as while this was far from a lecture, it did, through its simple story, illustrate through animation and well-portrayed characters give a sense of what it was like to exist under a fanatical regime whose adherence to an ultra-strict reading of religious law was ruining countless lives. This was by no means an anti-Islamic tract, and its voice cast were picked from Afghan performers who had fled the regime depicted, it was more educational than that with complete sympathy for those who were trapped in this cycle of violence.
Early on, Parvana's father is accused of not behaving within the law and arrested, an example of how merely not kowtowing to the conformity demanded by the straitjacket of a bigoted and extremist society that seeks scapegoats to blame its failings on rather than addressing them constructively can make the least deserving of all into a criminal class of prisoners of thought. As you can imagine, this was heady stuff for a cartoon aimed at family audiences, and there were times the weight of the subject's importance threatened to buckle what was a fairly simple yarn about a young girl trying to provide for her family in a nightmare scenario. With her (one-legged) father locked up and her mother beaten up for leaving the house without her husband, Parvana's family is in an impossible situation.
But there is a way around this: since the only male left in the family is a toddler, Parvana can cut her hair and dress up in disguise as a boy to fetch all-important provisions, which she does, even meeting an old pal who has done the same, Shauzia (Soma Chhaya), and makes her feel less alone, though even that almost conspiratorial relationship can throw up its own issues. Only the regular dips into fantasy sequences didn't quite flow with the rest, though did underline the importance of stories. All the way through, the simplicity of the artwork was belying the complex themes this brought to the fore, and in the main that was effective given even the happy ending had to be heavily qualified by the fact that the upheaval in Afghanistan was not going to be over any time soon. The unspoken fear that this is the normal state for the region, men murdering one another for some ill-defined religious observance and then turning on the women and children when they objected, was present throughout this nightmare, and the message that educating the female population was the best course of action was all you could take away in hope. Music by Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna.
[Studio Canal's DVD has a making of featurette, an intro with the director and Jolie, and the trailer as extras.]