The Breadwinner: When Girls Will Be Boys
Before my eyes billowing red clouds collide and then consume clusters of multi-colored geometrical flowers and patterns. Thunderous melodies and overtures of Eastern and Western instruments overwhelm my eardrums. My eyes, I feel, need to be bigger. My ears lack the more acute sense of hearing I need to fully absorb the kaleidoscopic rhythms and nuances traveling into them. A visceral experience leading to introspective reflection best describes my interaction with a new feature animated film, called, The Breadwinner.
Based on the novel by Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner is the story of Parvana, an 11-year-old Kabuli girl, enduring under Taliban rule alongside her crippled father, housebound mother and older sister, toddler brother, and the ghost of an older brother whose tragic fate we do not discover for some time.
Sixteen years after the invasion of Afghanistan, the media no longer fills our eyes with burqa-clad women looking out into the world from behind blue mesh. Or of turbaned Afghan men in the streets and roads of cities and villages who offer the only sign of life amidst brown dust, rubble, and ruin. The film takes us back to this day-to-day reality in a way we never were able to know because of the Taliban’s prohibition on photography, video, and brutal censorship of the people of Afghanistan.
In a world that is replete with chaos, violence, uprooting, and devastation, this girl reminds us of the human spirit’s extraordinary capability to thrive in spite of the evil forces that seek to squash the humanity in all of us. More than that, Parvana’s story and the lessons we learn from her journey in disguise as a boy in the streets of Kabul—so she can feed her family, free her father from incarceration, and save her sister from an arranged marriage—are particularly salient to the revolutionary voices around the world crying, #MeToo.
There were many challenges to making The Breadwinner. One being in the Taliban’s wake “there were very few and scattered musicians in Afghanistan who could play the traditional instruments that director Nora Twomey wanted to be included in the score,” said academy-award winning film composer Mychael Danna (Life of Pi) who created the film’s soundtrack with his brother Jeff Danna. For all of the film’s team, including Anthony Leo (Producer, Aircraft Pictures), Mimi Polk Gitlin (Executive Producer, Gaia Entertainment), and Angelina Jolie (Executive Producer, Jolie-Pas Production), respect and accuracy were crucial elements to perfect before releasing the film to the world.
Despite the obstacles, Anthony Leo knew the film had to be made. In a discussion with him and Mimi Polk Gitlin, Leo described his attraction to a story with “all the right ingredients,” allowing the viewer to feel “you’ve gone a journey with the protagonist, related to them, stayed with them, and then arrived at a different and better place.”
“An opportunity to show someone from this part of the world who isn’t just a victim,” the fact that the film’s completion comes at a time when stories with strong female protagonists “are more and more important,” says Leo, is a coincidence.
Gitlin, who also produced Thelma and Louise, said about her discovery of The Breadwinner, “I am always in search of stories with resilient and engaging female characters who are able to persevere through the most difficult of circumstances and here we are able to connect with this extraordinarily challenging journey through the eyes, heart, humor, and imagination of an 11-year-old Afghan girl.”
Over a platter of white rice placed on the floor, sparsely garnished with black raisins and strands of orange saffron, Parvana struggles with herself. The only luxury that her little brother Zaki knows in his life is the juicy burst of desiccated grapes at each meal they share as a family, but Parvana, too, yearns for the comfort that sweet things provide. Just one of many poignant and painful incidents illustrated in the film, Parvana decides to cut her long hair, dress in her deceased brother’s clothing, and take to the streets of Kabul to seek out ways to keep her family from starvation.
As a boy, within the prison of Taliban rule, Parvana experiences a measured sense of freedom. She is able to negotiate the price of basic necessities and seek employment. She can speak out loud and be heard. Parvana can make eye contact. And, the most important privilege that gives Parvana the most pride: She can provide for her desperate family.
On its surface, The Breadwinner is a winding and suspense-ridden cartoon with many more male characters than female. The men and boys exhibit a broad range of dispositions, from the most odious to the most heroic. In my view, the portrayal and narratives of the men in the film endows The Breadwinner with an enormous responsibility to play an influential role in the exploding discourse on the ubiquitous reality of sexual abuse—and men’s leading role in it—the world over.
For Executive Producer Mimi Polk Gitlin, the discussion of gender in the media is one that she influences through her film producing. Two very relevant projects she participated in are the extremely powerful documentaries dealing with toxic femininity and masculinity, Miss Representation and the The Mask You Live In. Both films have inspired cultural transformation movements that are helping activists navigate the mobilization of individuals who are finally willing to face the pandemic of gender-based violence in all places and industries.
Gitlin feels it is important to be cognizant of the fact that we can resist being “manipulated, dictated, and programmed when thinking about our roles.”
“You have a choice about what kind of person you want to be and the men and the boys of The Breadwinner show this,” she said.
With a focus on reaching audiences as young as eight-years-old, this demographic is where the potential for The Breadwinner’s social impact lies. Reaching girls and boys at these ages; educating and creating awareness about the different and unequal ways that boys experience the world compared to girls, will help to build empathy and a sense of accountability on the part of young people in perpetuating or deconstructing harmful gender stereotypes.
If we are going to change the way men and women view each other and behave toward each other, we have to start early. It is a tall order for an animated feature but this is the power of the medium of film to create social change. The serious approach to a respectfully and intricately told story certainly makes The Breadwinner up to the task.
See the film.
Peruse the study guide.