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


From the Land of the Moon Trite and Sexist

Directed by Nicole Garcia
IFC Films, 120 minutes, R (nudity, sexuality)
In French with subtitles

From the Land of the Moon was nominated for eight César awards and won none, thereby proving that sanity prevails in the land of fromage and croissant. Even though Marion Cotillard was cast in the lead role of Gabrielle, the best that can be said of the film is that Cotillard's appearance is akin to placing an elegant beret atop a cheap wig.  The film garnered middling reviews and the only thing that kept it from being savaged is that a woman, Nicole Garcia, directed it.

Think I'm kidding? Imagine if a man directed a film with these themes. Gabrielle is a sexually precocious teenager who tries and fails to seduce one of her married male teachers. She's also incorrigible, which leads her mother, Adèle (Brigitte Roüan), to arrange a hasty marriage to a Spanish laborer, José (Alex Brendemühl), whom Gabrielle finds boring and physically ugly. José agrees not to have sex with Gabrielle because, after all, the arrangement is financial insofar as he's concerned—not to mention that Gabrielle is obnoxious and mean-spirited. José does, however, prosper and he's a decent man who is at least willing to keep Gabrielle in material luxury.

But wait, we have a reason for Gabrielle's unpleasantness. The French title for this film is Mai de pierres, roughly "stone sickness." Gabrielle's libidinous desires are not so much a matter of frustrated sexual awakening as the fact that her body is riddled with kidney stones that occasionally cause her to double over in agony. So it's off to a posh sanitarium in the Alps to take a cure—not that the state of medicine is very advanced during this time, which is right after World War Two and in the midst of France's disastrous attempt to reassert control over Indochina. Gabrielle spends her days taking various water cures and throwing wobblies, until she mellows a bit in the presence of a kind nurse, Jeannine (Victoria DuBois), and when she helps care for and develops a deep lust for a handsome amputee André (Louis Garrel). Or at least that what's we are led to imagine, because we see things through Gabrielle's thoughts and not all of them are reliable.  

This could have been a film about female desire, or mental illness, or perhaps even France's fall from geopolitical relevance. One could have, for example, equated André's missing leg and feverish weakness with the dismembering of France's prewar colonial might, with Gabrielle representative of a population weighed down (stone-like) by sclerotic leaders blind to new realities. Instead it's just a big strip tease for a final reveal for characters about whom we've long since ceased to care. Not even Cotillard can redeem a role that's essentially that of a mimsy mooncalf.

There are but two reasons to consider this film. The first is its beautiful glimpses of the Alps in their niveous winter splendor and again in their verdant summer clothes. I'd suggest downloading a good travelogue instead. The second reason would be to open a contentious dialogue about double standards in contemporary filmmaking. Is a sexist film any less so if a woman directs? I'll skip that debate and simply declare From the Land of the Moon unworthy of further analysis.

Rob Weir


Carmanah, Buffalo Tom, Polly Woods, Taylor Leonhrdt, and More

Carmanah, Speak in Rhythms

Ready for some rock and soul? Carmanah is another amazing Canadian band, a quintet hailing from Victoria, BC. The amazing Laura Mina Mitic, a mite with a mighty voice that she’s not afraid to air, fronts the band. As the album title suggests, this is a record that emphasizes rhythm. “Send It To Me” opens to claps and stomps, settles into a funky groove and fuzzy electric guitar behind the beats, and lets Mitic wail voodoo soul-style of letting the Devil bring on hellfire heat. Band members are also eco activists, sensibilities you’ll pick up in songs such as “Roots” and “Water Falling.” It’s testament to band’s versatility how different these two songs are. The first uses a finger-snapping opening for a piece that layers guitars, moves to a big swell, backs off, and repeats—a perfect mood setter for a song that celebrates being in wild spaces. The second unfolds to something akin to cool jazz, segues to more rock flavored cadences, and lets Mitic bring on the soul. Rather have it soft? Carmanaha can do that. Check out “Another Morning” with its melodic acoustic guitar, gentler vocals, and tight harmonies. This is definitely a band to put on your watch-for list. ★★★★

Buffalo Tom, Quiet and Peace

If you share my view that rock and roll is best when it’s plebeian and loud, you’ll probably also share my love of Boston’s Buffalo Tom. (The name is an amalgam of Buffalo Springfield, a band these old UMass friends liked back in the 1980s, and drummer Tom Maginnis’ first name.) There’s a groove, timing, and synchronicity that longtime bands possess that you can’t teach. Although Maginnis, guitarist/vocalist Bill Janovitz, and bass player Chris Colburn have done other things in their lives, they’ve been playing music since 1986—even when they were technically on hiatus. Quiet and Peace is their ninth album—a mature effort that, despite the fact its content has the usual rock n’ roll dilemmas—exudes contentment around the edges. “All Be Gone” is a passage of time song that burns high octane, but it’s also about Janovitz missing tranquil days floating in a boat with his daughter. Several songs lament time wasted on things that mattered more than they should have: “Overtime” and “Roman Cars,” the latter pulsing with hints of New Wave rock. I particularly liked the yearning and spotted attraction of “Freckles,” which reminded me of a rocked out Richard Shindell song. Solid stuff from a solid band—and that makes them solid with me. ★★★★

Polly Woods Ordinaire, Polly Woods Ordinaire

I wish I could tell you something about Polly Woods Ordinaire, but there's scarcely a scrap of info out there. The name is lifted from an 18th century Virginia log cabin that was an inn operated by a widow into the 1850s, the "ordinary" signaling that it was a no-frills concern. It's now a tourist attraction of sorts off the Blue Ridge Parkway. I suspect, however, that this is a project led by Michigander Lucas Taylor. Whoever it might be, this is a terrific EP with folk rock/progresive bluegrass/mountain/blues grooves. There's always something going on in the music—in a good way. Even though there are not many instruments playing at any one time, the music feels big, even epic—like a community harmony is about to break out. The male vocals are as clean and smooth as the opening track "Clear Blue Skies." The other three tracks, "Colorado Mountain Pines," Hands," and "Howling at the Moon" are equally delightful."  ★★★★  

Update: Members of Carmanah seem to be connected with this project somehow. Why the mystery? Damned if I know! 

Taylor Leonhardt, River House

This young singer/songwriter from Raleigh, North Carolina, has just released her first full-length album. Her songs are personal and sometimes spiritual, but not of the stick-faith-in-your-face variety—more like being humble in contemplation of things bigger than one's own ambitions. A good sample of this is "Lay My Head Down," a piano-based song that, in my opinion, ought to lose the percussion track. I really like Ms. Leonhardt's voice. She tempers her high timbres and whispery tones with a quality that reminded me—despite their very different repertoires—of young Nanci Griffith. There are tender songs such as "When You Open Your Mouth," whose melody is reminiscent of Cheryl Wheeler's "Arrow." "Surprising Me" has a simple but effective piano hook," and "Today If You Hear Him" is another contemplative, quiet song. Leonhardt tries on a lot of different hats; you will hear splashes of everything from banjo to brass. I liked this record, but it's also a blender mix of indie, folk, and pop that's missing an ingredient or two. When we get to the end we think, "Ah, what a pleasant recording." In a perfect world that would be enough; in this one, it lacks a signature identity. I kept wondering what all of this would sound like with a producer such as Daniel Lanois (or a less expensive one in the same creative vein). I suspect that Ms. Leonhardt will need to pick a direction in the near future and, in my view, a bit of backcountry would be a good way to go. ★★★½

Kate Tucker, Practical Sadness/Sampler

Remember how Los Angeles used to be the music production capital of the land? That role has been taken over by Nashville and I’m starting to think that maybe that American music needs to get out more. Akron-born Kate Tucker has been around since 2007, often with the Seattle-based quintet The Sons of Sweden. She long ago moved to Nashville and is the kind of singer the industry likes: female and small-voiced. The challenge for each of these women is to establish an identity independent from the studio. I enjoy Kate Tucker, but not when the music features Nashville session players that drown out her mellifluous tones. On Tucker’s single from her new album, “It’s True,” she displays superb timing that gives accented heft to her voice. I also like the cool guitar riff on “In Your Arms,” though it points to a problem: a tendency to lose the singer in overly processed arrangements. This happens a lot these days; studio musicians grab the glory and female performers are interchangeable snap-ins. Check out back catalog material like “Blue Hotel” and “Let Me Go” and you’ll hear what I mean. From a musical standpoint, I’m more impressed by simpler tracks such “Where You Are (I am Already Gone),“First toLeave,” and the bubbly early-60s pop evocations of “You Belong to Love.” I think Tucker would be best served by traveling with just a good lead guitarist who knows how to shape a song instead of playing to formula. ★★★ 1/2

Society of Broken Souls, Midnight and the Pale

This is a tough review to write. I admire everything about the values of Dennis James and Laura Shapter, who bill themselves Society of Broken Souls. As their handle suggests, the duo is steeped in a narrative tradition that looks at the downside of life in an enough-with-rainbows-and-unicorns kind of way. Theirs is an often-personal look at the scars one accumulates through life stripped of magical thinking. As Shapter puts it in "Witness:" I don't need a hero and I don't need a hand/I   don’t need someone to rescue me from the places that I land/And I don’t need your pity, sure as hell don’t need your scorn/I just need someone to walk by me when I walk through the storm. Their music is frequently dark in tone, a combination of Shapter's acoustic guitar and James' brighter, even crystalline amped down electric guitar. Don't expect a lot of upbeat material. "Sunflower Blues" is about a person who would put the rain back in the clouds if you could; and the slow waltz tempo "Pretty" is a litany of all the messages society sends to young girls that mess them up as adults. That one would be destined for wide circulation were it not for my misgiving that you'll have little idea what they're singing if you don't have a lyrics sheet in hand. Shapter and James are so intent upon being serious that their voices often tail off and neither articulates consistently. Of the two, James is by far the stronger singer, as you can hear on "April's Moon." They are good songwriters, I get what they're driving at, and admire it, but its impact is diminished if we literally can't hear it. ★★★ 

Short Takes:

Now that Ali Akbar Khan is gone, who is the master of the sarod, that multi-stringed lute that is a staple of Hindustani music? How about his son, Alam Khan? His new album, Immersion advances such a claim. It features classic meditative ragas and occasional flight into something more modern and adventurous. In case you’re wondering, the sarod is enough like a sitar that non-aficionados confuse them, but its sound has richer overtones, different string tensions, and fewer melody strings. Partake of this slowly to appreciate its hypnotic qualities. Sample here.

 I don’t know if Sammy Strittmater would be comfortable being grouped with Alam Khan, but Get Out of the City shares trance-like qualities with Khan’s music. The Texas-based Strittmayer plays everything except bass on this record and his songs mostly address coming, leaving, and leaping into the unknown, but it’s the gentle spirit of his voice and dreamy instrumentation that resonate most deeply. His music has been labeled soft rock and Zen-like; at the risk of evoking an unpopular term, it struck me as popped-up ambient and New Age—in a good way. It is the kind you can put on your phone, pop in the earbuds, and simply chill. Try “Indigo Bunting,” “We Are the Evening Tide,” and the title track. One small slip: 17 tracks are half again too many. We want to vegetate, but not take root. ★★★

I tried to pass on Catherine Bent, but her publicist insisted I'd love Ideal. The idea was for Bent to use her cello to play choro, an upbeat Brazilian instrumental style that emphasizes bright melodies, improv, syncopation, and percussiveness. Maybe fans of meandering jazz will appreciate this, but I found very little spark or innovation on this record. In the age of players such as Natalie Haas, Gideon Freudman, Tristan Clarridge, Ben Sollee, Rushad Eggleston, and the incomparable Yo-Yo Ma, you need to do more than a bit of backbeat polka to impress.Click here for a sample. Call this less than Ideal. ★