How do you think The Breadwinner can equip children to deal with the overheating, war-torn planet world we’ve so tragically created for them?
Nora Twomey: For me, it’s all about empathy. Roger Ebert once said that films at their best are giant empathy machines. For us, a character like Parvana, through all her strength and vulnerability, is still just one human life on this planet, and that can be taken away at any moment. Yet she has inherited all of this history from her ancestors, and she has the capacity to transform her future. She is a character with flaws, which I love. She has a difficult relationship with her sister; she regrets something she did that she felt made her dad think a little less of her. These are all things that are very human, and have happened to me in some shape or form throughout my life, and yet they are still quite universal.
So how does The Breadwinner equip young people? I think the film nods to the complexity of all of the underlying issues that create environments where someone like Parvana would have grown up. I don’t have all the answers to what’s going to happen, or what should happen in conflict areas around the world. I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s in Ireland — where we had our own troubles, and our own political situation that took decades to arrive at a level of stability — so I have no blinkers on my eyes, in terms of understanding the vulnerability of peace, or the preciousness of hope and human life. For me, The Breadwinner is a celebration of all of those things.
Escape, not empathy, seems the goal of much of American culture these days. Do you think animation should be seeking less ways to escape the world?
Nora Twomey: I think all storytelling endeavors are one human being reaching out to another. To say that, for this journey at least, you are not alone, and I understand what you are going through. For me, all storytelling is about that. It’s about that moment where you are trying to understand what your life is all about. And you may never know! [laughs] But you will know that someone else is also experiencing it. For me, that’s what it’s about.
Animation — particularly this kind of co-production, with over 300 people from different countries and cultures bringing all of their skills together to make one film and tell one story with one central performance — is, for me, the ultimate expression of hope. We can use different cultures to tell a universal story. In The Breadwinner, Parvana wears the crown of a 2,000-year-old nomadic princess, which is based on an artifact dug up in the ’50s in an area of Afghanistan called the Hill of Gold. To me, the crown represents the Silk Road, the mix of cultures that ran through Afghanistan, and the idea of mixing cultures to tell stories, which is very potent.
Because we’re in a time when we are looking to pull cultures apart, and tell them they don’t have the right to tell their stories, which is the opposite of what we should be doing. We should all be trying to tell each other’s stories, to understand and participate in each other’s stories, so that we can learn about each other and have some of hope for the future.
Cartoon Saloon’s work embodies that philosophy: The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea explore Irish folklore and myth; The Breadwinner is anchored in Afghan culture; and your amazing first film, From Darkness, is based on an Inuit legend. Yet they all teach that storytelling, no matter its geographic origin, is a universal mechanism for unity.
Nora Twomey: Yeah, absolutely. As parents, I think our first urge is to tell our children a story. It is often the first thing they hear from us, which is utterly universal. Certainly, when The Breadwinner’s screenwriter, Anita Doron, looked at what kind of story we could tell for Parvana, it was a universal one, not specifically an Afghan one. It is that story of a hero with three tasks, which is told across different cultures. We very specifically tied it to her own family’s mourning, something that was impossible to express on a day-to-day basis, for fear of losing what sanity their family had.
At our cast and crew screening in Toronto, a cast member brought her dad, who had come to Canada from Afghanistan during the communist era, I think. I could see them holding hands all through the film, and afterward he talked to her in Dari, which is their language, about things that had happened to him and things that he had seen that he hadn’t expressed before. Because you can imagine, you can’t dwell on things when you need to raise a family in Afghanistan; you can’t express yourself if you want to hang on to your sanity.
Stories like The Breadwinner are a means by which we can open a little door to some of these areas in people’s hearts where they keep all of this stuff. Whether it be on that level, or whether it be on the level of a Western family with their own issues to deal with, including lack of families, there are hearts we can explore with films like The Breadwinner in a way that will start conversations.
How do you feel The Breadwinner, which opened the inaugural Animation is Film festival, exemplified the event’s aspirations for animation to be taken more seriously as a cinematic art form?
Nora Twomey: Seeing animation being encouraged like this is incredible. Standing in the theater and watching people walk into the different screenings is such a boost. There is a market for this; people are hungry for films that tell different stories. In terms of animation being film, I’ve probably gone through my whole life trying to fight against animation as genre. [laughs] And I’ve had people tell me that they forget that The Breadwinner is animation, as though it’s an insult to call it animation. I remember being in the back of a taxicab telling the driver about The Breadwinner and he said, “Why don’t you make it a real film?”
Saara Chaudry: There is an assumption that it’s supposed to be a live-action film, which is what I am often asked when I tell people what The Breadwinner is about. But animation isn’t supposed to be anything; you can take it in whatever direction you want. When people finally watch The Breadwinner, then they often understand why it is an animated film. It’s fantastic that we have such an incredible movie, based on an incredible book, in a festival that celebrates the choice to use animation.
This article appeared at CARTOON BREW