By: Elana Luban | Features  | 

Thoughts on New Film The Breadwinner

The Breadwinner, an animated film produced by Angelina Jolie and currently showing in theaters, takes place in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and centers around a young girl who takes control of her situation through her talent for storytelling. Yes, an almost Disney-esque film about radical Islam.

Based on Deborah Ellis’s best-selling novel of the same title,The Breadwinner’s plot was garnered from Ellis’s interviews with Afghan women in refugee camps in Pakistan, whom she spent months interviewing.

Here’s why you should call up those of your friends who consider themselves at least somewhat woke, drop everything, and go see it.

If you read any online summaries of the film, it might give the impression of being yet another girl-dresses-as-boy Mulan/Yentl story. It’s not. Unlike those two tales, this one takes place in the more modern late 90’s. On top of that, the circumstances in which Parvana, the eleven-year-old protagonist, finds herself are not unique to her in her part of the world and aren’t the result of an unusually tragic sequence of events (Mulan’s and Yentl’s circumstances are unusual in their respective societies). Instead, the circumstances in which Parvana finds herself are common; her father was arrested for no specific reason, and since women cannot go outside unattended by a man, Parvana’s family no longer has any means of supporting itself. This is what leads up to her decision to chop off her hair and dress as a boy, in order to both find work and buy food without constant harassment and the danger of being beaten or arrested.

Aside from working multiple strenuous jobs to feed her family, Parvana has another mission: to rescue her father from prison, or if that fails, at least to see him.

Day after trying day, Parvana uses her skill of telling vibrant stories to give strength and hope to her family and the friend with whom she works (another girl dressing as a boy for more oppurtunity, who used to go to school with Parvana years ago, but becomes a closer friend to her as the film progresses). Okay, an incredibly intelligent female protagonist using an extraordinary, pseudo-magical talent to distract herself from the difficulties of life and empower herself? Yeah, a little bit unoriginal, I’ll admit. But when you see the story she spins, it makes up for the slightly cliche, Disney-style plot device.

When the imaginary world of Parvana’s tale first appeared on the screen, depicted with beautifully colorful, cutout-style animation, I was pretty surprised. Not only was this world a stark, unexpected contrast to Parvana’s impoverished, drab surroundings in a half-desert, but the tale she invents begins with an end-of-harvest celebration in a small village, one in which men and women eat, dance, and rejoice together. The disparity between this united and joyful community, and Parvana’s world, where women are shamed constantly and beaten for leaving their homes unattended by men, is jarring.

In the tale-within-a-tale, the seeds the villagers have stored for the next harvest are stolen by the minions of the evil “Elephant King,” and one brave young boy decides to set out on a journey to battle the king and retrieve the seeds (various obstacles along the way are clearly symbolic of real issues in Parvana’s life). One of the most touching moments in the film is the exchange that occurs between the young hero and his fellow villagers: they laugh at him and ask him why he believes he can accomplish this, and he simply replies that he believes this because he needs to.

These simple words rang in my head long after the colorful imaginary world faded into Parvana’s non-imaginary surroundings and even after the film ended. Parvana, obviously represented by the hero brave enough to save his village from starvation, did what she did, not because of some carefully calculated decisions, but simply because she needed to. She saw no other choice: her family needed food, so she took responsibility and became the breadwinner. She yearned to see her father, so she did everything in her power to see him. No over-thinking, no pompous acts of courage -- just the need to stand up.

You don’t have to identify as a feminist to appreciate the heartbreaking beauty of The Breadwinner, but Ellis’s book series is considered a classic feminist work. Ellis says herself, “as a feminist and anti-war activist, I wanted to do something to be of use to the women in Afghanistan.” It will come as no surprise if the same will soon be said of the film adaptation. Feminism has always spoken to me for a combination of reasons; my parents both immigrated from Russia where the society was and still is quite patriarchal, and certain stories from their past (my mother once told me that in a moment of anger, her father had reminded her that as the daughter of the family, she was, unlike her brother, “just a piece of property”) continue to shape my views. In addition, I believe American society still has a lot of growing to do (for example, rape culture/shaming of women is still perpetuated in hit songs, etc.) in this regard. I recognize that it’s wrong to compare different kinds of obstacles, and that comparing America in 2017 to war-stricken late-90s Afghanistan is comparing apples and oranges, but, watching this film, I felt that I was seeing female empowerment in its purest, rawest, most primitive form. The courage and self-empowerment of Parvana is born of the simplest of reasons: need. She fills a man’s role, she saves her family through her daily perseverance, and conquers countless obstacles all in spite of the Taliban’s attempt to strip women of their basic rights. It’s easy to lose track of what we’re fighting for and what the world would look like today if no one had ever fought, but this movie is a good reminder.

About ten minutes into the film, upon noticing a modern-looking truck in the background of one of the scenes, the friend I was with turned around to me and asked, “wait a minute, all of this takes place today?” That was an unremitting thought of mine throughout the film. It only added to my unease that Parvana calls her parents “mama-joon” and “baba-joon” throughout the film, similar to  how one of my closest Stern College friends, who is Iranian-American, refers to her parents, reminding me that the past isn’t so far in the past, and the troubles of Middle East are not as far away as we’d like to imagine. My friend’s family escaped from Iran to America only sixteen years ago (she was three at the time), when the circumstances there seemed to be moving closer and closer to the circumstances depicted in The Breadwinner.

I’m a visual learner, so you could lecture me for hours about current wars in the Middle East, but those wars will still feel far less real to me than if I’m shown just a few depictions. I’m sure some of you can relate. This film might not have taught me anything new, but it made me see female empowerment -- human empowerment, really -- in an entirely new light. The “feminism” of Parvana is feminism at its most revolutionary, most pioneering, starkest, in an environment that needs it most. It is being human when those in positions of power simply… aren’t. Don’t watch The Breadwinner if you’re expecting a Disney movie; go for it if you’re looking for a sobering but beautiful film experience.