The Breadwinner Far More than a YA Film

Directed by Nora Twomey
Written by Anita Dorn and Deborah Ellis
A24 Films, 94 minutes, PG-13

There are those who argue that the Taliban must be part of any permanent peace settlement to end the war in Afghanistan. Very few of those raised voices come from women.

The Breadwinner did scant business in North American markets, though it gained an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. I certainly understand the war-weariness of the film-going public, but imagine what Afghans must feel.

I highly recommend watching The Breadwinner to gain insight into why sex and gender matter in Afghanistan. The subject matter is distressing, but the film is superb, and its animated format allows the squeamish to consider the violence inherent in the Taliban worldview without being bombarded with gory imagery. In fact, one of the film’s many virtues is that, by cartooning the violence, viewers are forced to confront ideological brutality rather than getting sidetracked. Let’s give this variety of fanaticism a name: misogyny.

We are taken to a marketplace where eleven-year-old Parvana sits with her father, Nurullah. By most measures, Nurullah would be a hero. He was a teacher who gave up his job to liberate Afghanistan from Soviet rule (1979–89). In this struggle he lost his oldest son to a bomb explosion and his own leg. Under Taliban rule (1996–2001), however, Nurullah is a worthless person, and is forced to peddle scant goods—including a hand-embroidered costume that was supposed to be for his eldest daughter’s wedding. He also has to hold his tongue from the insults of gun toting young Taliban punks who fancy themselves the purifiers of Islam. One day, Nurullah's not obsequious enough and he’s dragged off to prison.

Big problem. Women are not allowed to be in public without an adult male escort and there is now none in Nurullah’s household. How is his wife, Fateema, supposed to provide food or haul water for herself, her two daughters, or her infant son? She is beaten and threatened with prison for even raising such a question. The answer is always the same: find a male relative and stay out of sight.

Parvana comes to the rescue by cutting her hair, donning boys’ clothing, and passing as Aatish, Nurullah’s nephew. You can probably write the script from here—with harrowing escapes from being exposed as a central theme. Add to this threats and insults when she/he shows up at the prison seeking information on “Uncle” Nurullah. Parvana has an even more dangerous secret: she’s literate—a big no-no for Taliban misogynists. But as Aatish, she makes some money reading and writing for the large numbers of illiterate people, including Razaq, who may or may not see through Parvana’s disguise. Can she trust him as a potential benefactor?

Such a charade cannot last; they have an obvious shelf life. But Parvana means “butterfly” and Aatish translates as “fire.” The names are metaphors for both personal transformation and for the conflagration that will bring down the Taliban. Interspersed is Parvana’s serial storytelling to her baby brother of a young man’s encounters with the evil Elephant King.

The Elephant King folk tale has obvious parallels and, I suspect, that it, the film’s cartoon-like look, and the fact that the movie was adapted from Deborah Ellis’ YA graphic novel have led quite a few people to assume that The Breadwinner is a kids’ film. Perhaps, but I’d suggest that it’s deeper than that. The Breadwinner is ultimately a triumphant (of sorts) film about a tragedy. The script, direction, and imagery of the film do indeed cast an adolescent vibe, but as I suggested earlier, this is a deliberate softening of bloody detail in the service of focusing on the mindset behind the horror.

The rise of ISIS has shifted attention from the Taliban’s brutality, though insofar as the two groups view women, both are misogynist monsters. But don’t take my word for it­—ask the women in the post-Taliban parliament. Ask female professors, social workers, and school children. Ask Malala Yousafzai. And if the U.S. government agrees to a future government that includes the Taliban, ask why the hell we ever sent troops to Afghanistan.

Congratulations to all associated with The Breadwinner. It looks like a children’s film, but it’s really a testament to how you can slay dragons with a feather instead of an AK-47.

Rob Weir

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