Trojan Horse – Traverse Theare

Written by Helen Monks & Matt Woodhead

Directed by Matt Woodhead

Re-writing history is a debate worth extending, clarification, however, is a necessity – particularly when evidence comes to light which demonstrates political obsession to pervert the public opinion, using education as a vulnerable tool to stoke hatred. In 2014, Trojan Horse was the term thrown around for the ‘reports’ of the radical promotion of Islamist propaganda in three of Birmingham’s high-performing schools. LUNG theatre, in association with Leeds Playhouse, taps our shoulder to gently remind us that fake news is old news and that we still haven’t caught on to government’s brand of scape-goating propaganda.

Intense, Trojan Horse has little time in handholding the audience through the too-recent history for Muslim families, teachers and students within British communities. Translating over two-hundred hours of interviews, numerous public documents and accounts of public hearings into an attention-grabbing full-length production are far from an easy task. Across the classroom and whirling to the courts, the trials and secrets of those involved are looked at through an artistic lens, with a dose of healthy humour thrown in. 

Who can blame them at pop-shots at Michael Gove, former Secretary of State for Education? There’s quite a queue. At the heart of it all is a vendetta, a pursuit of truth and opportunity to expand on what has been a headline led story. Restraining overflowing aggression, Trojan Horse reflects on the events of 2014 through playfulness, brief movement direction and storytelling mechanics, rippled with fact. While appealing to our displeasure in the treatment of Muslim teachers in the community, it avoids pandering and leaping on the all too easy option of offence. The key strength of Trojan Horse is that it doesn’t feel the need to exaggerate or lie.

Infusing a school construct in design, Rana Fadavi’s set is clean, five wheeled desks serving as a variety of locations. The production is keen to promote those listening in Urdu, the video projection of Will Monk’s blackboard aiding with the production’s accessibility and breaks up the ‘chapters’. Detracting momentarily, the projection is occasionally over-used, bloating the stage when the performances and writing are considerable enough to hold attention without flashing text.

For really, as tight as Monks & Woodhead’s script is, it is the cast and Woodhead’s direction which compact Trojan Horse’s emotion into a direct pin-point assault. This is the form of production where emotional outrage, while justified, could easily tip the scale, but a balance is achieved. Points are put across by characters in an assortment of means, taking on multiple roles as students, teachers, parents and the occasional version of real0life councillors or committee members involved, particularly Komal Amin and Qasim Mahmood for their accents, physical transformation and capability of conveying class-attitude with minor touches.

Then Mustafa Chaudhry offers a solidifying moment for Trojan Horse, a point of humanity which tests the audience. Refraining from hushing a character’s thought on LGBTQI+ communities, Chaudhry controls the audience to still connect with the role, even if the revelation of his intolerance would otherwise remove our sympathy. It’s a testament to the writing, and the relationship Woodhead has with his cast, but it speaks especially of Chaudhry’s talent. 

The manipulation of media is nothing new, but the indoctrination of division within small family communities has been a growing concern. Monks & Woodhead demonstrate that the tactic is a readily used one, it’s only now the tactics are becoming apparent, no sense of fear or punishment for those perpetrating, but with catastrophic changes for those in the firing line.

Photo credit – Ant Robling

The Breadwinner

Directed by Nora Twomey

Written by Anita Doron, Deborah Ellis

Gloriously direct, “The Breadwinner” (2017) turns the patriarchal trope of a sole provider into an unflinching tale of a young Afghan girl’s determination, fear and resilience under Taliban rule in 2001. Based on Deborah Ellis’ bestselling novel, who returns to write the screenplay, “The Breadwinner” is a gut-wrenching reminder of the violence that women experience under the shadow of modern histories vilest patriarchal systems.

As the boys play solider, it is women who endure, women who spend their days attempting to find semblance amidst the chaos. Both the original novel and the screenplay have been written by Deborah Ellis, with the screenplay in part co-written with Anita Doron. With such a wealth of female filmmakers behind the film’s production, it’s little wonder how “The Breadwinner” manages to encapsulate female oppression from the most tyrannical of archaic patriarchies for verdantly. More importantly, how it refuses to victimise these mothers and daughters, instead, matching the strength they display with the losses they suffer.

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Opening-up with concerns over modern-day political coups, Western interference in the East and the severe imposition of female ‘modesty’, Twomey rejects an outright statement on the religious practises of a culture with which she is not a member. It’s a respectful opener, rife with imagery which speaks more than the words do, like America and Britain’s recent history in the region does not need to be stated when the bombastic annihilations of colour illustrate the point enough.

Reversing the term ‘breadwinner’, in which our first thoughts are of a man, usually suited, for some reason in fifties stylings, as the primary caregiver for the family. In Kabul, a woman isn’t in this role, unless her husband, brother’s, cousins or any other man in the family have died, left or are in prison. After her father Nurullah is taken to prison for hiding books in the floorboards, teaching his daughters, Parvana finds herself the breadwinner for her sick mother, her older sister and baby brother. That is of course after she sheds her headscarf, her hair and disguises herself as a boy. With her newfound ‘freedom’, Parvana discovers that “when you’re a boy you can go anywhere you like”, as suddenly she can hold her head high, walk and purchase goods, all with less fear of scrutiny. Here, Saara Chaudry‘s voice acting moves from the sombre tones to a jovial child who is unearthing the brief joys in life, in an otherwise difficult lifestyle.

And this power of the written word, a resentment from educated women, has references which you can locate in Nora Twomey’s direction and animation. The tool which Parvana’s parents use to educate their daughters, much to the disarray of the Taliban, a storybook, a simple, harmless storybook which offers key weapons in the fight of oppression: imagination and freedom, which offer liberation. Mentioned as a writer, Laara Sadiq’s role as such an educated mother, Fattema is soft-spoken, which as the stakes grow higher, morphs into a matriarchal powerhouse of desperation – a woman for who no man will tie-down, even when threatened at knifepoint, beaten or any other atrocities she suffers in the film.

Liberating a profound level of freedom with the text, Executive producer Angelina Jolie works alongside Ellis and Twomey to reinforce the film’s stringency to the truth. The beating we see Fattema endure, the threats of ‘marriage at her age’, sexual violence, arranged marriages and abuse of both daughters, “The Breadwinner”, regardless of its comedic moments, playful characters or visuals does not shy from authenticity.

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So please take heed, especially from an advocate of children’s cinema, that “The Breadwinner” is not a children’s film. It’s the antithesis of animation’s place as a respectful genre in the cinematic field. Though, I would implore anyone, that if they sufficiently trust their children are mature enough to watch this film, please encourage them to do so. Stripping back the otherness of cinema, “The Breadwinner” places us into the eyes of children in a culture, in a world which we in Western society only ever see through media’s altered vision. Canadian activist Ellis crafts “The Breadwinner” as starkly human, but nevertheless, it is a warming film of family, it will connect with you regardless of nationality, or at the very least we would hope it does. At its most beautiful, this film is a masterpiece in animation which deserves praise for its manipulation of light, layers and dramatic-symbolic storytelling.

Any readers familiar with Twomey and Cartoon Saloon’s previous titles, “The Secret of the Kells” (2009) and “The Song of the Sea” (2014) will have expectations of ‘The Breadwinner’s’ animation style. A wholly unique form than what s presently on offer from the large studios, and even the independents. What Twomey’s style loses in-depth, remaining in the two-dimensional construct the likes Dreamworks and Disney have since abandoned, she makes up for with a palette of immense colour, transforming Kabut into a rich canvas. Injecting the culture with a zest we are unfamiliar with, the landscape a breath of colour propels it into significance, even the darker moments capture the futility of the task ahead for the family with their foreboding monochromatic shadows.

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Quite the opposite, where shadow is the plaything of reality, ‘The Breadwinner’ delves into the cultural stories of Kabul and the Middle East. Snippets of pure escapist storytelling, these blissfully animated segments are awe-inspiring, with a unique blending of multiple formats. They are animated, maintaining Twomay’s two-dimensional style, but they have layers. Almost puppet-like, certainly origami-inspired, as the symbolic jaguars and wolves descend against the young boy, a reminder of so many claimed by war. Ellis so heart-achingly illustrates the maternal vein of the narrative, that it is put upon young Parvana, her mother and sister to keep the family going, their personas reflecting the stories she tells her young brother.

Purposely ambiguous, the film’s ending is bitter-sweet, though refrains from outright misery. “The Breadwinner” earns a spot as a monumentally important piece within the last decade, not only for having a team primarily made up of women, but also for Twomey’s championing a genre which suffers from a hugely lacking diversity. As animation slowly gains a foothold with dramatic representation’s, Hollywood would do well to remember the roots of the genre with the ink-artists of Walt Disney, all women, whose storytelling capabilities continue to manifest limitless story-potentials in ways other film-forms cannot.

Review originally published for In Their Own League: https://intheirownleague.com/2019/11/19/itol-top-50-films-of-the-decade-entry-no-32-the-breadwinner/