I admit I was a bit reluctant to even watch The Breadwinner because it definitely is not your typical happy go-lucky kiddie animated movie. Like Schindler’s List in animated form, it was a very eye-opening experience and a must-watch, especially now. The Breadwinner tells the tale of a girl named Parvana and her struggling family living in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, which is under Taliban control. Her daily life consists of going to the market accompanied by her scholar dad, who has been left with only one leg due to a bombing at the school. They both sit with all their worldly possessions, trying in vain to sell anything, including their reading and writing skills. Just a few remarks to an ex-student of Parvana’s father, who has now joined the Taliban, is enough of an excuse for the Taliban to raid their family home, beat Parvana’s dad to a pulp, and drag him away to prison, leaving only Parvana, her older sister, baby brother, and ailing mother behind.
Without her dad, Parvana and her family soon find themselves unable to do anything to even survive because they don’t have a man to accompany them outside the house. The Taliban’s strict rule imposes the most extreme form of Islam, meaning that women must be properly covered completely at all times and aren’t allowed in public without being accompanied by a man. The rules for girls are only marginally more permissive. Low on rice, Parvana’s mom tries to venture out and buy more, but all the merchants refuse to even consider speaking to her or selling her any rice for fear the Taliban soldiers would punish them for speaking to a woman when a man isn’t present. Parvana can’t even go out and collect fresh water from the nearby well for fear of being beaten. Desperate, Parvana’s mom tries seeking help to get her husband back, but no one will even hear her pleas. Instead, she is sent home beaten to the ground with bruises all over her body. In the meanwhile, Parvana tries to help care for her younger brother by telling him a fantastical tale of a boy who battles through a horde of supernatural horrors to face an evil elephant king. This story is told in segments throughout the rest of the movie via beautiful and vibrant 2D papercut figures, with a visible juxtaposition of the boy’s journey and Parvana’s own life.
Seeing no other way out of her family’s situation, Parvana decides to risk everything by cutting her hair to pretend to be a boy. Wearing her absent older brother’s clothes, Parvana ventures outside the home unaccompanied by anyone and finds freedom she had only dreamed of before, collecting a full bucket of water by herself, buying much needed rice for the family, and setting up the old blanket in the marketplace to sell the family wares as well as offer reading and writing services for much-needed income. Parvana also chances upon a female classmate of hers who has resorted to the same ruse. She helps show Parvana the freedom and tricks of acting like a boy.
The story gets a bit muddled and meandering from this point though. Despite Parvana’s new freedom as a boy, the family’s future is still uncertain. Parvana is just a ‘boy,’ and she can’t continue the charade forever to provide for her family. The family needs a more permanent solution. Can Parvana help provide it is the question.
Besides exposing the very distressing harsh reality of what many people are living through in Taliban controlled regions and exploring familial relationships and responsibility, The Breadwinner also shows how gender stereotypes and the vast inequality between genders impact society. The film’s director, Nora Twomey of Cartoon Saloon, in fact is one of the few women directors in the animation film industry which sadly shows that those gender inequalities and stereotypes still exist everywhere, not just in Parvana’s world. It’s only when such stereotypes are challenged or completely disregarded that one discovers that all people are much more than any stereotype. In the movie, Parvana demonstrates this in spades, doing unimaginable things to deal with what life has dealt her and her family. This complex subject is shown when Parvana develops an unlikely friendship with another Taliban soldier, something she never could have been able to do so as a little girl. We also see, through the eyes of Parvana’s friend, how men have also been subjugated into positions they aren’t quite comfortable with as well.
Overall, The Breadwinner is truly an enlightening and disheartening tale which everyone should see. In the end, you’ll cheer for Parvana and her journey which has opened at least the eyes of one unlikely friend along the way.