The Breadwinner written by Anita Doron and Deborah Ellis and directed by Nora Twomey (Aircraft Pictures, Cartoon Saloon, Mélusine Productions, PG-13, 94 min)
Starring Saara Chaudry, Soma Chhaya, Noorin Gulamgaus, Laara Sadiq, Shaista Latif, Ali Badshah, and Ali Kazmi.
A Hypothetical Nightmare
Imagine for a second a hypothetical nightmare. You, by your appearance alone, are unable to enter the public sphere. The marketplace, the agora where locals buy and sell goods is off limits. What would you do, especially if the government does little to support the marginalized and the least of these?
Would you risk punishment or death to find food? Or would you wither away at home, hoping for charity?
Fortunately, many people in America never need to consider such circumstances. As a society built on liberal pluralism, people of any gender, race, or creed enjoy access to the public square.
But other cultures don’t have such privilege. And even more, the current norms of any given culture might not last forever. As such, the warnings of authoritarianism rest underneath a heartfelt family narrative in The Breadwinner.
A History of Persecution
The Breadwinner begins with a story. An ameliatic father, Nurullah, narrates national history to his daughter, Parvana, in the marketplace while they attempt to sell family heirlooms for a profit. These stories act as an unofficial education for his young daughter. Life under the Taliban is rough, and the family has faced previous trauma, an older brother no longer watching over his sisters looms large in the narrative.
The restrictive rule of these religious zealots makes the public space off limits to women without the chaperoning of a man. So, when a contentious exchange in the marketplace leads to the arrest of Nurullah on dubious charges, the mother, sisters, and youngest brother face grave economic circumstances.
Grave Economic Circumstances
An attempt at resolving the incarceration results in the mother’s severe beating. And when Parvana takes a shot at acquiring goods in the market, vendors shoo her away for fear of facing Taliban repercussions. So, the family either starves to death, or sends a letter to a distant relative hoping for a marriage and a chance to survive.
Or, is there another way to disguise the feminine qualities that bar the family members from the public sphere?
Intercut with a sub-story told by Parvana throughout the narrative that focuses on internal family trauma, The Breadwinner explores the harsh realities of religious zealots from an empathetic position. This loving family just wants rice for the table. But the letter of the law forbids them from such basic sustenance.
While culturally and geographically a world away, I can’t help but find parallels in the United States. Even though our government isn’t forcing women indoors unless a man chaperones her, similar motifs around access to basic needs exist. Is it really much different to demand proof of a job to receive food stamps? Ultimately, such a suggestion argues that certain people, unable to attain these basic needs, deserve to die. The Breadwinner, too, raises these questions. What are we owed for our continued survival? And what roles does family play in the bonds that tie us all together. The Breadwinner is beautifully animated and masterfully told.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5