By Zea Eanet ’21
Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon’s third feature film, The Breadwinner, has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Picture and will show at the Hopkins Center on February 9. This film shares aesthetic affinities with its older siblings, 2014’s Song of the Sea and 2009’s The Secret of Kells, both of which also received Oscar animation nominations, but is distinct in several significant ways. While Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells explore the mythology and history of Cartoon Saloon’s native Ireland, The Breadwinner, based on the novel of the same name by Canadian author and activist Deborah Ellis, follows the story of an 11-year-old Afghani girl named Parvana living in Taliban-ruled Kabul in 2001. In preparation for the novel, which was published in 2000, Ellis traveled to Pakistan to interview refugees, particularly children, about their experiences living in and fleeing Afghanistan; she has received threats from the Taliban due to this work.
Animated films as a genre, if they can be characterized as a genre based purely on form, have a special place in the broad array of visual content that is commonly produced today. There are no constraints on the content of an animated film, and although animation continues to be commonly associated with stories for children, in recent years animated films have reached a much wider range of subject matter and audience. One of the specialties of this genre is its ability to represent disturbing themes and events in a way that is neither off-putting nor overly graphic, as can be a pitfall for live-action “issue” films. Cartoon Saloon has experimented with this ability in the past —one of the major themes in Song of the Sea is the effect of a parent’s apparent death on a child— but they have illustrated this point masterfully with The Breadwinner.
The story of Parvana is a troubling one; horrible and frightening things happen around her, to people she knows and loves. Under Taliban rule, women like Parvana, her mother and her sisters are not permitted to leave the house unless accompanied by a man. Ultimately, after the arrest of her father, Parvana is required to dress as a boy in order to support her family: she becomes the breadwinner, fully responsible for earning money and acquiring necessities for the entire household. This is a film that presents disturbing themes through the eyes of a child who is intimately affected by them, and yet these events are neither sugarcoated not played for shock value. In another context, this bluntness could be alienating or, worse, raise questions about the ethics of representation of such a complex and sensitive topic. In other words, its animation is what allows The Breadwinner to be such a successful adaptation: its essential and relevant concepts and themes are rendered comprehensible, sympathetic and especially appealing through the sheer beauty of their depiction. This is a film you’ll never want to look away from.