Filled with bright and vibrant colors, The Breadwinner is one of the best animated features to be released this year. This is not a fairy tale, it’s not about a princess and there are no magical creatures. It doesn’t need any of that to give it an oooh factor all its own. In a film year where we have heroines like Wonder Woman, The Breadwinner give us Parvana. Based on the Deborah Ellis book of the same name, the story is set in Afghanistan where Parvana lives with her family in a Taliban controlled town.
One day, Parvana’s father is captured by the Taliban and she is forced to pretend that she is a boy in order to help her family while trying to find a way to rescue her father from prison. Director Nora Twomey gives us a look into the reality of life for women and girls in Afghanistan to explain why Parvana’s disguise is necessary.
The animation in The Breadwinner is outstanding as is its story of a real heroine. At its heart is a strong female protagonist who goes from being invisible to finding strength and courage. I caught up with Twomey to talk about how Angelina Jolie helped guide her to create a story that will touch both adults and children alike.
What was it about the book that actually spoke to you?
I think first and foremost the character of Parvana and the way Deborah Ellis writes for young people. I liked the sensibility that you can take the subject matter of Afghanistan seriously but draws attention to the character of Parvana and her love for her dad.
The book was written in 2000 and the situation in Afghanistan has changed since then. How did you approach that?
It was something I was mindful of and everything that had happened since then including the fall of the Taliban regime, NATO entering into Afghanistan, and the resurgence of the regime, and ISIS. I wanted to mark in some way and I couldn’t do it on the top level of the film, but I wanted to make sure that there was a sensibility that understood things are more complex than we thought they were in 2000.
I spent the first year doing research and talking to as many Afghan people as we could and making sure we had as many to help guide us and give us that sensibility in the film. If you look at the ending, you see nothing is as clear-cut. At the same time, when I was doing the research and seeing the proxy wars, and in the West we are implicated in what’s happened there, those things almost paralyzed me as a filmmaker and I brought it back to Parvana. I thought if I could express the strength of Parvana and her vulnerability that that would be the heart of the film and at the center of it is this strong protagonist and it was important to me that she was so well formed.
I loved that Parvana’s strength transcends all cultures, but aside from the differences in culture, did you have any other challenges?
In the book, Parvana narrates a lot of the book and I couldn’t do that with the film because it would have created a sense of order when I needed a bigger sense of chaos honestly. I knew we couldn’t show what was going on in her head and it ultimately came down to the performances. It was also about talking to the Afghan girls about what would make them specifically Afghan in terms of the amount of eye contact she makes.
At the beginning of the film she tries to make herself invisible and tries to inhabit the least amount of space as possible and as the film progresses we almost forget her gender and she becomes somebody who is beyond gender in a way. There’s a funny parallel about people talking to me about being a female director, and I don’t see myself as that, I see myself as Nora and I think someone like Parvana would see herself as Parvana and not be defined by those borders. I think to celebrate what it is to be a child was important to this film and to have her strength come up through that.
I really thought that Saara Chaudry’s performance as Parvana gave our animators such amazing material to work on. You get the sense of a very intelligent young woman who has access to a range of emotions and a can deploy them in a wonderful way. I think Saara herself shares a lot in common with the spirit of Parvana.
Talk about the casting and staying true to the ethnicity of the characters and books.
Angelina Jolie was really good about that and advised me to cast Afghan actors. It was a co-production so I couldn’t record voices in Afghanistan, so it had to be from either Canada, Ireland or Luxembourg, but we found a lot of actors in Toronto and half of our cast is from Afghanistan and she guided us to help find actors with stories. Our Afghan cast gave so much to this project and Kawa Ada who plays Razaq was a dialect coach for the actors in the film. He’s a playwright and has this incredible standing and to be surrounded by that talent was comforting. It helped to make me feel confident. The fact they gave this so much meant the animators were energized by their work, but they could also understand the nuances of the cultures to help get the ethnicity that we needed.
How did Angelina Jolie get involved?
Karim Amer who is a documentary maker made The Square a few years ago and that documents the uprising in Egypt. They had been working with Angelina and had managed to get the screenplay in front of her and she read it, she understood what we were trying to make. She’s been working in Afghanistan for over ten years helping to better women’s education. The biggest thing she did was guide the sensibility of the film. She wanted to make sure we ended the film on the correct note and that we weren’t dismissing things or patronizing things and that’s where she was most important. She would record videos for the cast and crew, responding to their work so they could see she was involved as a guiding force throughout.
What did you talk about with the animators to get that realistic feel to the film?
I didn’t want to be led by the visual look of the film. I wanted the characters to lead how the film needed to look. We looked at Parvana and asked ourselves how did the film need to look in order for us to feel her humanity. Between that and people telling us about Afghanistan, we based it on that and relied on the voices to describe these things. Don’t forget photography was banned in Kabul at the time so the voices helped us achieve the look. The artists did such a good job on the film so much that you can feel the brush strokes in the film and it took a while to get it right.
As a producer and director and co-owner of the studio, what do you look for?
In this case, I was looking for stories that challenge us. For me, there was nothing more challenging than telling the story of The Breadwinner and for this, I knew I could stretch the team and grow with this. I look at our position as independent filmmakers with access to funding such as the film board in Luxembourg and the Irish Film Board and you realize that gives you a privilege and how do you use that.
In the case of The Breadwinner, as a mother, I wanted to use that privilege to tell stories that children wouldn’t necessarily get access to on the big screen. So, to be able to tell those stories is something I don’t take lightly and something I do think of as a privilege. If we don’t tell those stories then nobody will.