Life is hard when you’re a girl. This is true for young girls all over the world whom, without exception, experiences varying levels of restriction and misogyny due to their gender. But for women and girls in Afghanistan, this is painfully exacerbated, the misogyny of religious extremism influencing every single aspect of their lives. Parvana (Saara Chaudry) is one of those girls. Paravana spends her days at the market, peddling goods with her father, Nurullah (Ali Badshah), an unemployed amputee who was formerly a teacher. Each day that Nurullah takes his youngest daughter out with him, he endangers them both, but since he needs her help to keep their family of five fed, it’s a risk that they take every day.
But all of that changes when a former student of Nurullah and current Taliban member, Idrees (Noorin Galamgaus), spots Parvana at the market and, when her father rejects the idea of marrying her to him, Idrees orchestrates Nurullah’s arrest. With her father wrongfully incarcerated for an undetermined amount of time, the family is in dire straits. Parvana’s brother is too young too work, and her older sister, Soraya (Shaista Latif), and mother, Fattema (Laara Sadiq), cannot leave the house without a male escort. Parvana has no choice but to disguise herself as a boy in order to leave the house freely and become the family’s breadwinner.
The Breadwinner is riveting from beginning to end. Though it is a children’s film, this movie does not shy away from uncomfortable topics such as war, wrongful incarceration, religion, and terrorism. We are pulled not just into Parvana’s world, but also her mind. Parvana is intelligent, resourceful, and selfless, but has to operate thus while disguised as a boy, because the world she lives in requires girls to be docile, obedient, seen and not heard. Despite the gorgeous animation, amazing score, and necessary subject matter, The Breadwinner left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth.
Based on the best-selling children’s novel by Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner is the byproduct of months of Ellis interviewing women and girls in refugee camps in Pakistan, and then using their stories to compose this work. While Ellis has contributed royalties to Women for Women Afghanistan and UNICEF, a White woman in the West packaging the pain of women under Taliban rule smacks of White saviourism. That the narratives of this marginalized community are being sold in this work of fiction, however good it is. Many will argue that she is raising awareness, but this statement itself infantilizes those who live this life and assumes that they aren’t capable of engagingly telling their own stories.
Despite this (and it took a lot for me to see beyond the aforementioned), The Breadwinner is one of few children’s films that I found to be equally enjoyable for both adults and children, and one that can take children in the West out of the shelter of Ameri-centric media and actually get to them think about the lives people are leading in less privileged parts of the world. I give this one 4.5 stars.