Animated Film 'The Breadwinner' Aims to Show the Struggles of Females Under the Taliban Regime
"Oftentimes women and young girls are the first to suffer in a society where something has gone terribly wrong," says director Nora Twomey, who teamed with Angelina Jolie on the project.
The animated film The Breadwinner, based on the children's book of the same name by Deborah Ellis, follows an 11-year-old Afghan girl named Parvana whose father has just been imprisoned. Under the Taliban regime in 2001, women were not permitted outside their homes without a man; Parvana disguises herself as a boy so that she can get work and feed her family.
Behind GKIDS' critically acclaimed feature (which earned a Golden Globe nomination and 10 Annie nominations) are two women — director Nora Twomey and executive producer Angelina Jolie — who hope their story about a strong female protagonist living a difficult life in Afghanistan will resonate with viewers in a way many animated films do not.
"Sometimes the struggles of women are very subtle; sometimes they are very open and public. Oftentimes women and young girls are the first to suffer in a society where something has gone terribly wrong," Twomey tells THR during a Nov. 20 interview. "The Breadwinner expresses something, more than anything else, about the preciousness of young girls in our world."
Jolie, who is known for her international activism, has been doing human rights work connected to Afghanistan since 2001, when she took her first trip to Pakistan to work with Afghan refugees; she has built two schools in Afghanistan. "Life for so many people in Afghanistan is so hard, and they are still in danger of radical groups taking over," she says. "I hope this film is also just a reminder of these extraordinary families who have gone through so much."
Jolie notes that Twomey "was the right person to direct this — male or female. It's not just a film that she had the heart and soul but the intellect and capability and leadership and strength to steer the ship."
One of the biggest challenges in the film was getting the ending right. "The concern we had shared, which was an important one, was how do we leave this," Jolie says, noting that the film is set 17 years in the past. "In Afghanistan today, the situation for girls and children there — many people there — is still very dire. Fifty percent of girls are out of school, and more are illiterate. About a quarter of the children are breadwinners, between 5 and 14."
Near the end of the film, planes are seen making an air strike on Kabul. "You don't want to suggest that these planes coming in were going to suddenly free the people, that it suddenly was all right," explains Jolie. "We talked about how complex this was, and Nora handled it extraordinarily well."
The film's impact has been felt far beyond the awards circuit, with Twomey participating in screenings and discussions at such institutions as the United Nations as well as one in Washington, D.C., attended by Rula Ghani, the first lady of Afghanistan.
Working with Girl Rising, a nonprofit that targets girls' education and empowerment, the filmmakers on Nov. 2 co-hosted a screening and conversation for young girls at Los Angeles' Museum of Tolerance.
Twomey has found that at screenings of The Breadwinner, "with very young children, the questions they ask are quite extraordinary. 'What is it like for a young girl now in Afghanistan?' and this comes from a 6-year-old. To see animation being used to explore these things is very unique."
Indeed, at the Museum of Tolerance screening, one child wrapped up the Q&A by asking, "Will there be a sequel?"
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.