The Breadwinner, a young adult novel that has been a longtime staple in Canadian classrooms, is becoming a new animated film thanks to a Toronto production company and executive producer Angelina Jolie—but Jolie isn’t the only reason to get excited about this movie.
The original novel, written by Canadian author Deborah Ellis, follows the story of an 11-year-old Afghani girl named Parvana (voiced in the film by Saara Chaudry). Living in Kabul, under strict Taliban in rule, Parvana is not allowed to attend school or leave the house without a male chaperone, leaving her confined to her family’s one-room home in the remains of a bombed-out apartment building. However, when Parvana’s father (voiced in the film by Ali Badshah) is taken away by the Taliban, the young girl disguises herself as a boy in order to earn money for her family.
Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai told the New York Times that the story is one that all girls should read: “The Breadwinner reminds us how courageous and strong women are around the world”—and this film certainly has some powerhouse women behind it. Case in point: the film’s director Nora Twomey, a groundbreaking female leader in the male-dominated industry of animated feature films who was recently named as one of the top 10 animators to watch by Variety.
“Recently, I watched two teenage filmmakers stand on a stage to take questions after their short film screened at a festival, one a girl, the other a boy. A general question was asked from the audience and there was momentary confusion over who should answer. The girl pointed at herself quizzically asking, “Will I answer?” while the boy just took the microphone and started talking,” Twomey tells FLARE. “I saw a part of myself in that young girl and I have to say it took me a long time to stop asking permission to do stuff and just go ahead and ‘grab the microphone.'”
That “grab the microphone” spirit is close to Twomey’s heart and the heart of the film, which is set to premiere on Sept. 8 at TIFF.
Though the novel came out in 2000, Twomey says that its message is just as important now.
“Everything that has gone on both in Afghanistan and around the world in the years since the book’s release, has made this story even more relevant,” she says. “Children grow up in difficult circumstances all around us and stories that reflect that reality are needed in popular culture. Films like this are unusual, but I wish they weren’t.”
The Toronto production company also made a concerted effort to ensure that the film looked as authentic as possible.
“The film also takes place in a time when cameras were not allowed in Kabul, so it was difficult to research. We had a lot of Afghan consultants who helped us get a picture of Kabul, family life, how people carry themselves and we incorporated these observations into the animation,” says Twomey. “We also did a lot of research into the history and culture of Afghanistan to try to give a feel for the bigger picture. But ultimately we looked for universal themes and traits to tell our story because as much as our characters are specifically Afghan, they are also just ordinary people trying to do the best they can for their families.”
In an age where audiences and actors are fighting for better representation on screen, Twomey and her team also ensured that the film featured a diverse cast of actors to bring the story to life.
“We found as many Afghan actors as we could around Toronto where we did the recording, as well as people from different backgrounds, to give some depth to the voice performances,” she says. “The actors made the characters their own and it was really emotional for me to see them give it their all in the recording booth.”
When the novel originally came out, its Canadian author pledged to donate all of the royalties from book sales to Women for Women, an organization that supports marginalized women in conflict zones, including Afghanistan. In the same spirit, Jolie has said that all of the profit she earns from the movie will go toward education initiatives for girls in Afghanistan.
“I am proud to be a part of this beautiful film with this timely and very important subject matter,” Jolie said in a press release. “Millions of girls around the world have to grow up before their time, working to provide for their families at a very young age and in difficult circumstances. They have the strength to do what no one should ask little girls to do.”
Twomey hopes that The Breadwinner will be more than just a film for audiences, but will prompt conversations that we need to have.
“I hope that parents will go see The Breadwinner with their older kids and talk about it afterward,” she says. “Animated movies are capable of taking audiences on an emotional journey in an intelligent way and that’s what The Breadwinner aspires to do.”