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Augmenting brutality

Stirring animation portrays young girl risking persecution by the Taliban

“The Breadwinner”

“The Breadwinner” may be animated and based on a young adult novel, but rarely in a film have the dangers of being a woman under Taliban control felt so palpable and heartbreaking.

Now streaming on Netflix, this recent Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Feature tells the story of an 11-year-old girl named Parvana. She lives in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, where the Taliban rules the country with an oppressive interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. Enforcement is harsh and merciless.

Parvana’s father, Nurullah, provides for his wife, two daughters, and baby son. Their lifestyle is meager, but their household is loving. This fragile existence breaks completely when Nurullah is imprisoned after an angry Taliban member makes false accusations against him. Since women are not allowed in public without a male escort, this leaves his wife and daughters trapped at home without a source of income.

Their only hope is young Parvana—with a short haircut, she can pass herself off as a boy. And she does.

Bravely venturing into the city on her own in male disguise, Parvana looks for any hustle she can find. Along the way, the world opens up to her like never before, and she forms an unexpected bond with a grieving customer (the film’s best, most tender throughline). But the danger is always there, looming, particularly as she strives to free her father with bribe money.

That danger of dehumanizing cultural misogyny isn’t merely suggested—it’s seen. Women are beaten with canes; girls are threatened. The violence is just out of frame, but the subsequent bruises and pain are shown.

In a year that gave us breakthrough female directors like Patty Jenkins (“Wonder Woman”) and Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”), Nora Twomey deserves to be heralded in the same breath. This Irish-born director melds tension and beauty with sensitive candor, telling an inspiring story with her female collaborators Anita Doron (screenwriter) and Angelina Jolie (executive producer), with source material by author Deborah Ellis.

“The Breadwinner” also marks Cartoon Saloon as one of the world’s premiere animation studios. It’s their third of three features to be Oscar-nominated (following “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea”), with a signature 2-D aesthetic that rivals global powerhouses Disney, Pixar, Laika, and Studio Ghibli.

Instead of softening the degree of brutality, animation has a way of augmenting it, making these realities more, not less, resonant and visceral. Even in a discreet, tactful portrayal it’s unsettling to see such inhumane cruelty in a medium so commonly associated with innocence. “The Breadwinner” grieves these injustices and empowers its victims with courage and resolve.

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