'The Breadwinner' is an impactful lesson in the power of storytelling

Animated Canadian co-production comes to Screening Room for fundraiser

The Breadwinner.
The Breadwinner.
Screenshot from Youtube

On Saturday, the Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan organization presented The Breadwinner to a sold out crowd at the Screening Room.

With the screening being a fundraiser for the Canadian organization, the film fittingly tells the story of Parvana, an 11-year-old girl living in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan during the lead-up to the war in 2001. After her father is imprisoned, she cuts her hair and pretends to be a boy so she can support her family.

Lovingly animated, the film offers a poignant depiction of Afghanistan that captures the effects of this long-term conflict. Whether it’s the bombed-out buildings sitting dilapidated in the background or the characters’ mental and physical scars, the movie refuses to flinch from the realities of the country’s complex history.

Despite this backdrop, The Breadwinner still manages to carefully introduce its characters and presents fleshed out residents of Kabul that are more than the products of conflict or social class.

It’s rare for a children’s movie to dive into such conflicted characters and content, but thankfully, The Breadwinner is the exception. Despite its use of animation — a common trait for a simple kid’s film — it’s prepared to show characters who struggle with their role in the Taliban or put themselves at risk to feed their family.  

The end result is a deeply human portrayal of conflict that viewers of any age can grasp, while still leaving room for nuance.

That being said, the movie can still be quite bleak. For every warm family moment, there’s another hint of loss, trauma or uncertainty. These snapshots are often quite small: the first offhand reference to a lost son, a character missing a leg or a hidden book to escape the attention of the authorities.

It’s only more heartbreaking when you consider the sole persistent escape for these characters is storytelling.

The characters tell several smaller stories throughout the film to cope with the challenges around them. Their words cut to voiceover as the realistic grey and brown animation gives way to a full colour pallette in a fantastic, often humorous storytelling world. 

Rather, these scenes give the viewer a break from near-constant dire circumstances. The characters’ stories give them the agency to face their world and cope with its difficulties.

While jets fly overhead, bombing the countryside, the movie’s resolution is left ambiguous with characters separated and hurt. The Breadwinner doesn’t coddle its audience; the characters you’ve grown attached to might not make it out and if they do, there’s no guarantee for their quality of life.

If there’s something hopeful, it’s in main character Parvana’s commitment to storytelling and the potential for the gaps created by violence to be bridged by her sharing of experience. This isn’t the kind of moral Pixar would accept.

Success is relative to the characters’ situation and commitment to maintaining their humanity regardless of whatever threatens it.

It should be noted that this theme appears strongest in the movie’s female characters, who carry most of the film. Despite their differences, they’re clear examples of courageous female characters finding strength in their relationships and building lives despite the array of forces arranged against them.

The Breadwinner isn’t an obvious children’s movie by any stretch. It’s willing to tactfully expose its viewers to difficult subject matter without downplaying the complex realities of living in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The Breadwinner is proof timeless themes like the power of storytelling have the ability to translate across audiences of all ages.

The Breadwinner returns to the Screening Room this Thursday.

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