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/

The Monstrous Heart – Traverse Theatre

Written by Oliver Emanuel

Directed by Gareth Nicholls

Choking, claustrophobic, Mag’s cabin exists in an idyllic retreat many would desire, but others would suffocate within its freedom. Where the subject of nature vs. nurture arises, the concept of a monstrous mother is by no means recent. Oliver Emanuel’s The Monstrous Heart entwines nature so integrally with the narrative, as a force offering redemption for one, yet suffocation for another, that the brutal interruption of Mag’s daughter Beth only spells chaos.

A definitive stick of dynamite, Christine Entwisle spends a decent portion in, somewhat, of a controlled state, ready to blow. Cowed and beleaguered, despite her rejection of daughter Beth, we sympathise to an extent. Far from simpering, there’s a hint of a stoic woman who has perhaps been lost, or as it would seem, is merely hibernating…

Without an ounce of shame, Charlene Boyd’s self-destructive Beth is just as enrapturing to watch, as she is repulsive in manner. Gareth Nicholl’s direction, evidently liberating, pits Charlene Boyd against Entwisle in a compelling fashion. Boyd’s brazenness unhinged but articulate is troubling – but in actuality, she’s cobbled her pieces back together to seek answers, or perhaps vengeance. Thus far, we stick to the plains of reality – these are the squabbles which place themselves firmly in verism. That is of course until a certain bronze-coloured beverage knocks Mag’s off her wagon – here, straying into overwrought abstract, nature has a force to awaken within this mother.

We have, however, failed to address the Elephant Bear in the room. Lifesize, designed to perfection by Cécile Trémolières, it’s presence is of debate among the characters, but its symbolism goes far beyond mere spectacle. Voice-over work in the theatre is rarely a discussion, but Tanya Moodie’s voiceover for the bear, nature, however you wish to interpret, is driven with guttural passion.

With the pace of an extraordinarily slow badger watch, The Monstrous Heart has the grim appeal of a car crash, but in a hyper-slow motion. Refusing to look away, knowing that there is some form of carnage awaiting, but you know that you should. As layer upon layer is cut away, peeling itself to reveal a gruesome secret, Emanuel’s writing steadily evolves but takes too long to get there, dragging out this family-reunion in the wrong places, burning the candle a too vigorously, then snuffing out the progression it illuminates.

What little lighting is utilised, is effective as a conveyer of emotional turmoil, or the bleakness of the mountain’s chill. Gradually dipping, a storm hailing beyond the door, sunlight fading out from the cabin. So subtle, yet effective, a shiver creeps up, taking us by surprise. At its most effective, as the door holds open, a thin blanket of snow covers the floor. The fading light all but gone, briefly illumined by the dying glow, it’s a final image which sums up the production in a chilling way.

Mother knows best, or at least, they often think they do. Emanuel’s production captures the ferocity of a mother-daughter relationship, dialling the emotional instability to the maximum. An argument centres on whether evil is born, or manifested, stems back to, well, as soon as we were able to articulate the question. As the piece’s referential homage to Shelley’s Frankenstein asks: are monsters born, made or is the creator, the parent, the true monster? The Monstrous Heart asks tough questions, tackles a monstrous mother, her twisted daughter, and cackles in the face of beauty.

Runs at The Traverse Theatre until November 2nd. Tickets available from: https://www.traverse.co.uk/whats-on/event/the-monstrous-heart

Photo credit – Mihaela Bodlovic