BFI London Film Festival 2017: „The Breadwinner” attempts a difficult balancing act

By the very nature of its premise, the most recent Cartoon Saloon feature „The Breadwinner” has to perform a difficult tightrope walk in terms of tone. On one hand, it’s an animated film adapted from a popular children’s novel, so it seems that entertainment value and a happy (or at least hopeful) ending would be prerequisites. On the other hand, it’s set in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, so it must deal with theocracy, gender apartheid, war devastation (and the signs of another impending war), violence against women and children, violence in general, poverty- and all of it from the perspective of a little girl.

The results of this balancing act can be uneven and a bit awkward. For the most part, the story is almost relentlessly grim, as it probably has to be to achieve any degree of realism. For good things to happen to the characters at all, unlikely saviours and coincidences must appear, obvious writerly interventions that make the dark landscape around them appear even darker. „The Breadwinner” has a similar premise to the 2003 Afghan film „Osama”: the protagonist is a pre-teen girl who must disguise herself as a boy after her family is left without a male provider during the Taliban regime. I haven’t seen „Osama”, but I know that it doesn’t end well, and I understand that its lead actress has suffered many hardships since the movie was made. The tragedy of Afghanistan is contemporary and still-unfolding; perhaps it’s impossible for a Western-made children’s film on the subject not to be somewhat clumsy.

The Breadwinner

The Breadwinner

Even if the writing doesn’t entirely succeed, however, „The Breadwinner” is incredibly beautiful to the eye. The ” real-life”, Afghanistan-set scenes are elegant, in a style that’s both distinctive and simple; sequences in which protagonist Parvana is telling a story to her family and friends are vibrant, sometimes scary and sometimes humorous, featuring the usual Cartoon Saloon flair for turning folklore-inspired tales into gorgeous animation.

Apart from the undeniable artistic merit of the film’s visuals, the most remarkable thing about „The Breadwinner” is that it is written and directed by women and attempts to provide a look from the inside into women’s experiences, something that’s sadly too rare in cinema in general, and perhaps even more so in animation (think about how rare it is for a female director to helm a major animated feature, and how much of a fuss there was about Pixar’s Brave, for example). Moments like Parvana’s temporary euphoria at being granted freedom and respect when she’s taken for a boy are touching, even if they seem familiar from other stories. I hope someday to live in a world where it’s possible to see in a major festival a film made by Afghan women telling their own tales.