Dough and Kindness
I am, as you might have guessed, very familiar with the pre-film rituals of a cinema trip – one buys one's ticket, one visits the restroom, one takes one's seat, if there is a substantial wait before the film one might look at an e-reader, one waits patiently through the adverts, one takes note of any forthcoming attractions which are, um, attractive, one greets the eventual arrival of the certification with a degree of relief, and so on. Sometimes, however, it just ain't so, and one or more elements of this sanctified procession get omitted. This is usually a sign that you are in for a slightly different experience. (We shall not even touch on the phenomena of post-film special events, which in my personal experience have included discussions of the nature of extraterrestrial life, an impromptu gig by one of the world's greatest ukulele players, and a few drinks with the director of The Wicker Man.)
Suffice to say that the most recent visit dispensed entirely with the adverts (hurrah!), but also the trailers (hurroo), and in their place featured speeches by representatives of the Oxford University Press and a local charity devoted to helping refugees. As you may have guessed, we were not here to see Deadpool 2, but an advance screening of The Breadwinner, directed by Nora Twomey, an animated film about life under the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Yes, yes, I know: it's a cartoon about the Taliban, so Grave of the Fireflies-esque levels of bleakness and tragedy must surely await, mustn't they? Well... look, this movie is based on a best-selling book of the same name by Deborah Ellis, and the movie (executive produced by the only Angelina most people can name) was Oscar-nominated earlier this year, so you would hope it to have a certain cachet of quality about it. I think it does; this film isn't just worthy, it's worthwhile.
Nevertheless, it does largely take place in Kabul under the Taliban regime, so there are inevitably going to be sad bits. Initially we meet Parvana (Saara Chaudry) and her father Nurullah (Ali Badshah). She is a girl just on the cusp of her teens, he is a former teacher who lost a leg fighting the Russian invasion of their country. (The unutterably sad history of Afghanistan is recapped with exemplary clarity early on in the film.) Under the ferociously chauvinist, anti-intellectual rule of the Taliban, life is hard for the family, who are reduced to selling their possessions in the market in order to get food to survive.
Things get even worse when Nurullah inadvertently offends a member of the Taliban and is dragged off to prison, with the rest of the family having no idea when or even if they will see him again. Parvana, her mother and sister are left without an adult male relative, which basically means they can't leave the house even to go shopping without risking a punishment beating from the authorities. How are they expected to live?
Well, Parvana has an idea: she cuts her hair, dresses up in her dead brother's old clothes, and goes out, pretending to be a boy, which allows her to buy supplies and make a little money doing odd jobs. It turns out she is not the only one to have hit upon this idea, and teams up with a friend, Shauzia (Soma Bhatia), who is doing the same thing. Her ambition, though, remains the same – she wants to get her father out of prison, but how can it be done?
There is obviously a sense in which The Breadwinner is beyond reproach, dealing as it does with issues of women's rights, literacy and education – films dealing with this sort of material are pretty much assured of a good response, as I discovered when I saw a slightly suspect documentary on the Afghan rapper Sonita Alizadeh at the same cinema a while back. And there is certainly a lot to praise about the film – the animation is appealing and capably done, especially in the fantasy sequences which punctuate the film. There are no big-name voices in the cast, but the acting is also well done.
Yet I feel I have to say that while The Breadwinner is obviously a good film, and commendable in terms of its message, I don't think it is a great one – I can completely understand why Coco got the nod at Oscar time. Why is this? Well, first of all, although the story is engaging enough, it never completely grips or feels like it is driving forward in any particular direction. The film finishes around the time of (we are invited to infer) the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but while the conclusion is reasonably upbeat, there is no real sense of closure or finality to the events. In a similar vein, the film features a story-within-the-story device, as Parvana relates a fairytale to her baby brother and various other characters. It's a highlight of the film, with a slightly different style of animation, but in the end exactly how this second story relates to the main one is unclear – if it is as laden with symbolism as it seems, it's very hard to work out how the symbolism actually works.
And also – and I admit this is an odd thing, especially to say about an animation which has clearly been made with at least half an eye on a young audience – I just found that it wasn't nearly as gruelling to watch as I expected it to be, and I was sort of disappointed by this. It's a film about life under the Taliban, one of the most brutal and illiberal regimes the world has known in recent years, so I half-wanted the film to make me sad, and angry, and outraged, before leaving me feeling a bit uplifted and affirmed in my bien-pensant values. So, in a strange way, the fact that it ended up just being a very nice film was somehow disappointing.
So, anyway, there's very little wrong with The Breadwinner, and I think it should provide an entertaining and improving experience for any young people (maybe even not so young) of your acquaintance. But I doubt it will really stir the emotions, one way or the other. There are probably very good reasons for this; it's just a question of whether you feel some real-life horrors should be presented honestly, even to a younger audience. Nevertheless, a thoroughly commendable movie.