Director Nora Twomey Shines Light on “The Breadwinner”
By Laura Blum
A scrolling band of carnelian clouds circling clockwise, a boy in an Afghani folk costume swirling within, a radiant beam at the center: The opening frames of Nora Twomey’s animated film The Breadwinner tell a tale of light and shadow, conjuring dream imagery of the pyche’s quest towards wholeness in the larger world. In case you haven’t guessed, we’re in the realm of universal truth, seen from toon-spun Afghanistan.
The allegory quickly blossoms into a parralel narrative explaining why we first hear the din of Kabul’s main market. Set in Taliban-ruled Kabul of 2001, the “real-world” backbone of the film centers on an 11-year-old Afghani girl named Parvana who chafes under the restrictive occupation.
We soon learn that the mystical “story world” introduced at the start is of her conjuring. Rendered in cut-out animation, it follows a young hero’s quest to defy the evil Elephant King tyrannizing his village. The tale itself hails storytelling for its power to illuminate, captivate and soothe. One look at Parvana’s baby brother Zaki—whose cries subside at the sound of her words--and we understand that power.
“For me, Parvana's voice is the light,” Twomey tells thalo.com during her recent travels in New York. Just as her heroine beams her enchantments, so too Twomey’s solo directorial debut seeks to elucidate and transform its rapt audience.
Four years in the making, the Irish, Canadian and Luxembourgian co-production was an all-out cultural immersion for the Cork-born filmmaker and her team. “We talked a lot with our Afghan consultants about the things that set Afghans apart and the things that are universal,” she says.
Things like the collectivist values of traditional Afghani society, for starters. “In Afghanistan the needs of the family unit are more important than the needs of the individual,” Twomey explains. “We wanted to represent the sense of loyality to the family while also taking on board the structure of the family across age and gender.”
It took some serious research. The groundwork must be credited to Deborah Ellis, whose young adult novel that inspired the film drew on her interviews two decades earlier with Afghani refugees in Pakistan. Ellis helped rework that 2000 story together with scriptwriter Anita Doron and, in an advisory role, with executive producer Angelina Jolie.
The Breadwinner also mobilized 200 artists for its screen incarnation. Little in Twomey’s early career augured such strategic command. In fact, she dropped out of school at 15 and bounced from dollmaking to a factory job before resuming her studies, first in fine art and ultimately in the animation department at Ballyfermot College of Further Education in Dublin. Together with classmates Tomm Moore and Paul Young, she co-founded Kilkenny’s Cartoon Saloon, whose Irish fantasies The Secret of Kells (which Twomey co-directed) and prior Song of the Sea both snared Oscar nominations. Now the high school dropout has been tagged by Variety as one of 10 top animators to watch.
Which takes us back to The Breadwinner. Let’s pick up where we left off.
We first meet Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) hawking goods with her father, Nurullah (Ali Badshah), on the market grounds. A former teacher, Nurullah also reads and writes letters in Dari and Pashto for illiterate customers. When he recounts the history of invaders their forebears have endured—including Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and, the reason Nurullah lost a leg, the Soviets--Parvana sniffs that she’s “too old” for stories. Little does she grasp the power of storytelling until tragedy strikes.
The narrative of past conquests suddenly assumes fresh relevance when her father is jailed by the Taliban for challenging their oppressive decrees. Having acted up when Nurullah tried to sell her fancy dress to put food on the table, Parvana is consumed with guilt and shame. Will her father ever come back? How can her dispirited mother (Laara Sadiq’s Fattema), stir-crazy older sister (Shaista Latif’s Soraya) and little Zaki survive without a male guardian in a city where women are forbidden out alone?
To become the titular breadwinner, Parvana cuts her hair and sports the clothing of her dead brother Sulayman (Noorin Gulamgaus), who was years earlier killed by a land mine. Kabul is open sesame as shopkeepers sell the apparent boy their goods, and another girl disguised as a boy, Shauzia (Soma Chhaya), teams up to work odd jobs reserved for the opposite sex.
Yet with freedom comes responsibility. For Parvana, standing up for herself also means doing right by her family. She braves hostile terrain to get her father released. An unlikely ally is Razaq (Kawa Ada), a contemporary of Nurallah serving the Taliban but undiminished in his humanity. Razaq empathizes with Parvana just as she empathized with him after translating a letter about the death of his beloved wife. Razaq’s memory of a freer Afghanistan imbue the film with a glimmer of hope.
Twomey elaborates below on the themes and creative processes that make The Breadwinner a vision not to be missed. Read on for our full conversation:
thalo: "Parvana" means "butterfly" in Dari. Did you and Deborah Ellis discuss the idea of freedom couched in this name?
Nora Twomey: We didn't really discuss the significance of Parvana's given name because I wanted to streamline the amount of symbols we used in the film. For me as a director, the name Parvana gives herself, “Aatish,” meaning “fire,” had a bigger significance in this film as it has a transformative effect on her mother and ultimately everyone around her. It also ties in with her father's name, Nurullah: “Light of God.”
th: What were you going for with the attention to light, from the opening beam to the chiaroscuro lighting?
NT: Though I'm not religious, this idea of light has a major significance for Parvana's world. Women in Kabul at the time would have had little access to sunshine. We use light and shade as a storytelling device in the film. Characters walk in and out of the light, and the world of Parvana’s missing older brother Sulayman is given form by light between the layers of paper.
th: How did you modulate light intensity to tell the evolving story?
NT: Literally the whole film starts to move towards sunset, so we get a huge saturation towards the climax of the film as the sun begins to set, which makes everything a little bit more dramatic. Then we cut into Parvana’s imagination, and the palette becomes more dramatic as well.
th: What was the design thinking behind both stories’ increasingly vivid palette?
NT: At the beginning of the film, we set out with a very realistic rendering of Kabul--very dusty landscapes with lots of browns and golds and oranges in our palette. We wanted to differentiate it from the story-world, which has a very jewel-like color palette reminiscent of Afghan artwork and artifacts, favoring black and white and red. So Parvana's “real-world” and the “story-world” start out quite separate, each providing an element of color that doesn't exist in its opposite world. Co-art Director Ciaran Duffy and his team worked out an entire thumbnail version of the film making sure the color palette progressed along with the emotional beats of the film. Our Production Art Supervisor, Guru Studio's Sanatan Surayvanshi, and Art Director Reza Riahi of Cartoon Studios, made sure the story-world always gave us something that evoked the history of Afghanistan with the lighting. As the two worlds progress, the colors, the animation and the depth of field begin to merge toward the climax of the film. We wanted to make sure these two separate worlds come together towards the climax of the film so that the story-world has a lot more 3-D depth to it and the real-world palette intensifies to a high degree.
th: We get the full bang of Parvana’s imagination when the clouds of war over Kabul mesh with the cloud-bands of the Elephant King story.
NT: From Parvana’s imagination you register the bombs of war that had been dropped when Sulayman lost his life. The two begin to merge to a point where you get that it’s Parvana’s understanding of her external world.
th: Why did you go for a naturalistic look for the real-world sequences?
NT: We wanted the world Parvana inhabits to feel fully immersive. We wanted to give Kabul a painterly treatment and to give an accurate impression of what it “feels” like. That was very important to the story. Every decision we made was led by story needs. Ciaran Duffy really explored every option before settling on acrylic and Photoshop. He is an accomplished compositor as well, so knew how to plan for the best results. I felt if we had stylized Kabul and the animation more, Parvana would have felt less mortal, less vulnerable, less “real.” We continued this idea through with compositing, using a lot of dust and light effects. Sound design also played an important part in making Kabul feel immersive.
th: Back to Parvana’s imagination, what about the cut-out style said, Folk legend?
NT: I was always aware that there is a danger with a film like this, that the audience could disengage emotionally if we stayed with the tension of Parvana's life for too long. We needed to escape into her imagination, to be allowed access to her playfulness. The cut-out style looked quite different, yet still allowed us to use visual motifs and colors associated with Afghan art and culture. Toronto’s Guru Studios helped us define and attain the style of the story-world. We achieved it digitally (with Moho software), using cut-out references shot for us by Cartoon Saloon’s Concept Artist, Janis Aussel; then Sequence Supervisor Jeremy Purcell, also with Cartoon Saloon, figured out how to achive the look with San Surayvanshi of Guru.
th: Many of the story-world frames are reminiscent of the Herat school of Afghan/Persian miniatures. Tell us about the art references for this film.
NT: Reza Riahi was quite inspired by the Herat school of Afghan/Persian miniatures, and a lot of the design motifs in the story-world are inspired by this. We looked at artwork from the Bactrian period, especially the Tillya Tepe treasure that was discovered during the 1950's and disappeared during the Taliban era only to be discovered in a flooded bank vault in 2003. Afghanistan is such a cultural treasure trove, through all its different eras--it has such a rich and deep history. Ciaran Duffy, when exploring the real-world look, initially looked at German Expressionist films to give a sense of visual imbalance and to use light and shade to tell the story. But ultimately, we found, in order not to be overly manipulative or tell the audience how to feel, we went with a more naturalistic style for the artwork, animation, sound design and music score.
th: Is Parvana modeled on the National Geographic’s iconic "cover girl in 1985," Sharbat Gula?
NT: Yes and no. We modeled her face on the way our co-art director Reza Riahi naturally draws female faces and also on Saara Chaudry's facial structure. The decision to give Parvana blue-green eyes was because, for a film with a dominance of brown-yellow colors, we needed to balance the palette and draw attention to Parvana's face. We see her eyes darting from person to person, taking in the world around her as a young girl barely moving in a crowded market, and that wouldn't have worked so well if she had brown eyes. Of course she draws to mind Sharbat Gula. I think that photograph has endured because we didn't associate green eyes with Afghanistan, or South Asia.
th: Why is eye contact so critical in this story, and how does it reflect the character arcs?
NT: In the film, Parvana has to express a lot of the things Deborah's book does with narration. Voice-over would have killed the sense of drama and danger in the film, so we concentrated on pushing a lot of performance through Parvana’s eyes. The film has an emotional beat where we see one character search another's face for signals rather than asking or expressing things with their voices. Parvana would have tried to make herself invisible in the marketplace. She would have observed others while trying not to be observed. The use of subtle animation puts the audience closer to the subject. It makes them feel part of the film, searching faces for clues.
th: The protagonist of Parvana’s legend is a young man, Sulayman, yet it’s hard not to wonder why the folk heroine Malala—considered an Afghani Joan of Arc--was passed over here.
NT: We wanted not to have the film feel political and not to associate it that openly with any one conflict that happened. In Afghanistan, I felt you could read into (the 1880 battle for independence from the British that Malala allegedly led) as something the film was saying which it’s not. She’s a wonderful hero to be celebrated. But it was a conscious decision to make the film more universal.
th: Talk about the challenge of striking the right balance between hard-hitting violent reality and palatable entertainment for all ages.
NT: Well, I think the film is primarily for people from the age of 10 upwards. Under that age, it depends on what the child is able for. Adults tend to come to screenings very tense, expecting more violence than we show. Children tend to take their cue from Parvana. The fact that she normalizes her circumstances gives them comfort and a sense of control. At the end of the day, I followed my own sensibilities, never being gratuitous with violence, but also trying to do justice to the people whose stories form this film.
th: What were your considerations in crafting the ending, which diverges from that of the novel?
NT: Finding a hopeful ending, without being overly simplistic, was really important to everyone who helped make this film. I think you can only strike that balance if you sit with your animatic and imagine you're with your audience--Afghan, Western, young and old--and create the animatic with that in mind. At the end of the day, the animatic is the film.
1.A family dinner before the Taliban cart away father Nurallah in Nora Twomey’s “The Breadwinner.” Photo courtesy of GKIDS.
2.Enlargement of The Breadwinner poster. Photo courtesy of GKIDS.
3.Sulayman in the story-world of “The Breadwinner.” Photo courtesy of GKIDS.
4.Parvana and Shauzia in the real-world of “The Breadwinner.” Photo courtesy of GKIDS.