Originally published in Milestones: By Jalil Kochai
On November 17th, 2017, about one month after the 16th anniversary of America’s invasion of Afghanistan, Nora Twomey’s filmic adaptation of the children’s novel The Breadwinner was released in the US to critical acclaim. Some of the acclaim has been well deserved, as The Breadwinner proves to be a beautifully animated film with a simple but touching storyline and cast of lovable characters. However, the aesthetic qualities of the film are marred by its uncritically secular investments, most vivid in the film’s orientalist portrayal of Afghanistan, lack of cultural and historical accuracy, and indirect support of imperialist interventions. In this work, I contend that in its ineffective attempt to reveal the struggle of Afghan women, The Breadwinnerdangerously simplifies contemporary historical and cultural formations in Afghanistan to suit (and reproduce) an audience with liberal sensibilities.
The Breadwinner follows the story of a young Afghan girl named Parwana (Saara Chaudry). Parwana lives in the slums of Kabul with her father, mother and two siblings during the decline of the Taliban Regime in 2001. After her father is wrongfully imprisoned by the Taliban, she is forced to dress as a boy in order to work and provide for her family. As the narrative progresses, Parwana attempts to make contact with her father who is jailed at the infamous Pul-e-Charkhi prison. Desperately in need of a male relative able to provide for the family, Parwana’s mother decides to marry off her older daughter to distant family members in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif. A male relative arrives to pick up Parwana’s sister and mother at the end of the film, at the same time as the onset of the US invasion. It is in this moment of chaos and the relentless bombing of Kabul that Parwana successfully enlists the help of Razaq, an Afghan man she befriended, in breaking out her father. Miles away, her mother decides that she does not want to leave for Mazar-e-Sharif without Parwana and forces her male relative to let her and her family out of his car. The film’s ending is left ambiguous as Parwana and her father attempt to reunite with the rest of their family.
The Breadwinner presents a compelling narrative and features an intelligent and courageous female protagonist. The film’s plot is multilayered and rich, and characters seamlessly tell stories within stories. The characters, while simple and flat, are also lovable; Parwana’s struggle leaves the viewer rooting for her against all odds, and her father Nurullah is a picture of pure care and dedication, at least by a liberal bourgeois standard. Whereas the original novel by Deborah Ellis is mediocre at best—the storyline cliché, the characters one-dimensional—the film is masterfully animated and visually enticing. More importantly, the narrative suits the film-form. However, when one begins to look more deeply at specific elements of the film, The Breadwinner’s attractive façade begins to fall apart.