By Imogen Dodds
I have been surrounded by the Afghanistan conflict for the vast majority of my life but I seldom remember a time it fully shifted into my conscious knowledge. When I was 7, my family moved to the Ministry of Defence base in Gibraltar as my Dad had been hired to teach at their primary school. Without being fully aware of it, I was making friends and meeting many people who had some hand in the conflict. A few years after we left Gibraltar to move back to England I would learn that a close friend of mine lost her father in the Afghanistan war. To me, at the tender age of 10 at the time, it placed the war in clear black and white terms. We were good and Afghanistan was bad. In my young mind, there was no way my best friend’s Dad could do anything wrong. He had to be fighting for a good reason.
SEEING THE REALITY
Yet The Breadwinner showed me the grim reality of what is so often painted as a clear issue in our media. As a child, I could never comprehend what it meant to have ‘boots on the ground’. I couldn’t empathize with the idea of the British soldiers being villains in someone else’s eyes. I was so alienated from the struggles and fears of children the same age as me, how could I ever fathom that reality? Yet thousands of children have to live it.
That is why, to me, this film is such so vital. Kilkenny’s Cartoon Saloon is pioneering in there matching of sweeping mythical storytelling tied to grounded, down-to-earth realities, a combination that is perfectly suited to Deborah Ellis’ much-loved novel. Although I was completely taken in by the fantastical story the protagonist of the film, Parvana was weaving; the true beauty of the film lies in how we are guided through the eyes of a determined young girl. It is by her resilience that the film does not feel as it if there to preach, or have an agenda, as the humour and courage are undeniably human.
As I watched the film unfold before me, I suddenly saw the opposite side to my childhood. The perspective of a conflict that in my 10-year-old mind made sense but played out before me felt so alien. I had met soldiers that had been the boots on the ground that are referred to in the opening dialogue of The Breadwinner, that had been scary in the eyes of children similar ages to me. There lies the true power of this beautiful film, it’s ability to humanise a conflict in a genuine and empathetic way.
So as I watched the 11-year-old Parvana on the streets of Kabul, having cut off her hair and put on the clothes of her dead brother to provide a means of survival to her family, the reality I had superficially been aware of was painted in its entire colour before me. The bright excitement of Parvana feeling the tendrils of freedom never afforded to her under the Taliban rule, since women cannot leave their homes unchaperoned, are clouded by the looming threat of war gathering once more.
GROUNDED IN THE STORY
It is a testament to both Ellis’s novel, painstakingly researched in the late 1990’s when she interviewed girls and women in refugee camps in Pakistan, but also Nora Twomey sensitivity in her screen adaption. Twomey retained the authentic culture of Ellis’ book yet pushed the narrative so that it shone on the big screen. As the world Parvana creates gently wraps into her reality, the spiralling cut-out animations of her imagination echo of Twomey’s past creations such as The Secret of Kells and The Song of the Sea, while remaining steadfast to their specific colours and culture of Parvana’s Afghanistan. It is the repeated strength of Kilkenny’s Cartoon Saloon’s style of interlocking theatrical stories with grounded reality, a style that feels suited to the rich culture of Afghanistan.
What purveys every frame of The Breadwinner is care, love and empathy, that is so desperately needed to tell this story. I doubt many can walk away from this film without having had their perspective on Afghanistan changed.
A LEGACY FOR REFUGEE VOICES
The films’ ability to open eyes and humanise the often-chaotic media of today has seen it inspire other filmmakers. I work with a young filmmakers’ group of 15 – 25-year-olds called SCREEN31, a branch of the Gulbenkian and Arts Council funded organisation ART31 that strives to put young people at the heart of arts and culture. The group met and worked with two Syrian refugees, the same age as them, and were tasked to create a short stop-motion film of their story. What unfolded was an incredible journey for SCREEN31 as well as Rand and Omar. Similar to how The Breadwinner opened my eyes to the opposite side a conflict I had grown up within the background of my life, the Syrian war is an ongoing backdrop in many British young people’s lives today.
Which is why I think The Breadwinner is so important, it’s bright yet heartfelt storytelling inspired a group of young people to eloquently tell the story of two people their age who had, had completely different life experiences. The other important aspect of the use of animation in storytelling, especially in these cases, is that it affords anonymity and protection for the subjects of these films, Rand and Omar could not be shown on screen, but animation allows for their story to still be told. As Annabel, a member of SCREEN31 says; “I would encourage others to take up the chance to involve yourself with refugees and hear their stories. It is vital to see them for who they are.”
Moving forward ‘The Story of Rand and Omar’ will be screened as a short before films at the Gulbenkian, including a screening of The Breadwinner. I hope as more and more people see The Breadwinner or come across The Story of Rand and Omar, that they will inspire others to look at conflict not in statistics or news reports but for the people, and their stories.
Imogen is am currently a Film Studies student at the University of Kent. This past year she has been a Marketing and Programming Intern at the Gulbenkian, as well as the communications assistant for their young person initiative ART31. She has adored animation throughout her life because she thinks there are no limits to it – it can make the most far-fetched of dreams a reality on screen. She has a particular fondness for Nora Twomey’s animation, especially The Secret of Kells.