You could say it was bread that won over Nora Twomey.
“Around 1999, I was driving in to work and had the radio on, and there was this report about Afghanistan and how they had these bakeries; there were so many widows because of the decades of war,” says the soft-spoken, award-winning Irish director of the animated “The Breadwinner.” “Widows were allowed to work in these bakeries: They could bake bread, sell bread and use some of the bread for their families. And the Taliban were shutting down these bakeries. The ridiculousness of my life as I was driving in to work versus a woman of my age living in Afghanistan at the same time; it struck me.
“So when I read Deborah’s book, it really touched me.”
Deborah is Canadian author Deborah Ellis; her book is the award-winning novel of the same title that follows young Parvana, a girl in war-torn Afghanistan under Taliban rule. When Parvana’s father is arrested, she must disguise herself as a boy in order to earn a meager living for her family (becoming the “breadwinner”), while trying to free her father.
While working in refugee camps in Pakistan in the late ’90s, Ellis spoke with female survivors of the Afghan regime.
“The women could not work under Taliban laws and a lot of the men had been killed or wounded,” says the author. “If there were no boys in the family, the girls would disguise themselves … I thought that was such an incredible act of courage. I wanted to share it with people in this part of the world.”
Ellis enthusiastically supported telling Parvana’s story through animation, to make the film more accessible to kids and to make it easier to dub into other languages.
“For a movie about war and difficult situations, they made it look so beautiful,” she says of a film that incorporates regional iconography into its design, especially in the sequences in which Parvana tells a mythical story.
“They made the country of Afghanistan look beautiful, which it really is. And they managed to put that beauty and the kindness of the people into a film that is about very difficult things.”
When the project was still finding its footing, two of its executive producers got an early version of the script to humanitarian and filmmaker Angelina Jolie, who then came on as a producer.
“I was a little bit terrified – am I going to lose control of this thing completely? But she was really down-to-earth, really sensitive. She wanted to make sure we were always mindful of the broader picture, the political situation, and make sure we had the sensibility and tone just right. She also made sure where we could, we cast Afghan actors, and where we couldn’t, they were people [who] could bring something to it.”
Twomey (“The Secret of Kells”) says her movie is meant as, “first and foremost, a piece of entertainment,” but took cultural sensitivity seriously.
“I took nothing for granted with this film,” she says. “We worked with a lot of people, a lot of consultants – some of our cast are Afghan … all these different stories. And all those stories make their way into the film in some way. One of the actors based his vocal performance on his neighbor, growing up in Afghanistan next to this kind of comically mean neighbor.”
That involvement of Afghan voices extended to the score by Mychael and Jeff Danna:
“There’s a music institute in Kabul where there is a girls’ choir … every time there’s a moment of hope in the film, you hear those girls,” Twomey says. “We’re portraying a time when to laugh out loud would be frowned upon, as a young girl.”
Ellis points out the film has an educational component, to make it accessible for teachers, while the book has raised nearly $2 million for Afghan charities.
“This is something we can fix,” she says, referring not just to the oppression of women, but to the decisions to go to war in the first place. Ellis says she wants to remind everyone it’s not just a country’s leaders with whom we go to war; it’s their people, their children. “We can fix this. We can make this better. We’re not destined to do this. We’re destined to do better things.”
Twomey agrees. “If the film can do anything, it would be [to foster] those conversations. If our children are asking more intelligent questions than we asked and aren’t looking for sound bites, if they’re looking for the deeper reasons for things, they might have a more empathetic understanding of the world around them.”