I met Director Nora Twomey and lead actress Saara Chaudry to discuss The Breadwinner, an animation film set in Afghanistan under the Taliban, where 11 year old Parvana is forced to dress like a boy in order to work to support her family after her father is arrested.
When did you first come across the story and what attracted you to the idea of making it into an animation film?
NT: in 2013 my partners brought home the book from Canada and asked if I’d read it. It took me on an amazing journey with the character of Parvana and I was astounded at Deborah Ellis’ way of writing a character that wasn’t sentimental and didn’t talk down to the audience to which it was primarily intended – which is young adults. It was so unusual and yet so universal. There are a few times in your life where you have that feeling that ‘I should really do this’ and this is going to be an incredible challenge. As an independent filmmaker I don’t take my ability to chose the films I get involved in for granted. We can co-produce films with different countries that have similar sensibilities and hold the same things precious, like cinema and storytelling and animation and get films out that don’t ordinarily get shown for children and young adults.
Complex moral tales are important for young adults, do you agree?
Yes I’m a mother myself of children aged 7 and 9 and what scares children isn’t what we think scares children from an adult perspective. I have yet to meet a young adult who is scared by The Breadwinner, usually there are just questions and really interesting questions about the character Parvana. The Breadwinner opens a conversation and has that capacity and certainly from Deborah’s novel, I tried to carry that spirit through.
S C: I actually read the whole Breadwinner trilogy when I was just 9 years old and I fell in love with the book. Deborah Ellis became my all time favourite author. It helped me to understand what other girls in the world are facing and it made me passionate about women’s rights. A year or so after I read the book I met Deborah Ellis because she came to my school and did a q&a and she picked me at the end and I asked ‘is there a chance you will make The Breadwinner into a movie?’ She said it most likely will be, so I was so excited and before I knew it my agent had called and said there’s an audition for The Breadwinner. So ever since those first auditions I just wanted to do justice to this incredible, brave character Parvana and here I am today.
Ireland and Afghanistan are two very different cultures; What type of research did you need to do to prepare for making The Breadwinner?
NT: Deborah had talked to a lot of Afghan refugees in Pakistan back in 1998, then Anita Doron who wrote the screenplay is Ukrainian and grew up behind the iron curtain and has moved around her entire life and doesn’t have a particular sense of place which is an interesting perspective for a screenwriter to have for a film like The Breadwinner. We worked with an Afghan-American artist who gave us a lot of advice during the screenwriting process and then we brought it out to a lot of Afghan people to give us different perspectives because within Afghanistan you have a lot of different ethnicities, so we got as many different perspectives as we could and then tried to have a birds eye view and brought the whole story back down to a family, a young girl, her love for her father, her annoyance with her big sister, her playful relationship with her younger brother. Animation is an amazing art form that can contain all these different things at different levels. As an Irish woman approaching a culture that’s different than my own and then trying to find the things that we have in common and certainly talking with Afghans and having them contribute to the film, made me realize how much more we have in common than separates us. When you look at Afghanistan being part of the silk road and you look at artifacts from Afghanistan and seeing blends of different cultures coming together and this film is like a blend of different cultures again, coming together to tell one story.
What research did you do for your role Saara? How did you prepare for the role of Parvana?
S C: I read the trilogy and the follow up book My name is Parvana. Having that knowledge from those books and reading what Deborah Ellis had portrayed was definitely a great help in getting into this character and understanding where she was coming from. Also I researched articles to help me understand her culture better.
How did you personally, as women, connect with the story and characters?
NT: As a mother and as a filmmaker first and foremost you have to tell the story for yourself and to yourself to bring up real reactions and go by your own sensibilities. It was difficult listening to so many stories coming from Afghanistan and the research phase was quite emotional. As a mother, I remember when I had my children I couldn’t listen to the news for about a year after I had my first child, because you wake up in the night to hold them and cuddle them and these things you do to infuse love into a life and then the idea that it can be gone in an instant, so as a woman that was my most vulnerable time. Then to try to create a language with which we could cherish all of these things but also acknowledge the reality in which people live in different parts of the world or even in our own history. I’m Irish, my ancestors lived through the famine in Ireland and there’s still a spoken history through the women in my family, I know a reaction that my great great grandmother had to living through the famine, when asked about it she had no words but would just hold her apron up to her face and cry and this was passed down and I realized that I had this verbal connection to the women in my family all down these generations.
S C: My grandfather was born in Afghanistan and actually fought in the Hindu Kush mountains which was a big connection with the movie because Parvana always tells stories about these mountains. That was a beautiful connection for me. Having an Afghani grandfather made the connection real for me. Also seeing this young girl with so much determination and such a positive outlook on life meant I can see myself in her, I share her determination and especially in a male dominated industry that I’m in. So I see those qualities in her and so even though I’m in a completely different world there are these odd ways that we can connect and it’s beautiful how I can connect with someone who is very different from myself but in many ways very similar.
Nora what challenges did you encounter directing your first feature?
N T: The Breadwinner is my first solo venture directing, I had co-directed The Secret of Kells with Tomm Moore but I was very much in a supporting role for that film. Every film has its own challenges and its own set of mistakes. In Song of the Sea I was the head of story and I directed the voice cast as well but you can’t necessarily take from one film and apply it to the next one, you have a whole new set of challenges and this was certainly the case with The Breadwinner. Coproduction can be difficult because you’re working with different companies around the world, trying to ensure we’re reaching partners who have complimentary skills to those we have. We worked online all the time, we have a production pipeline software which meant that an animator in Luxembourg could finish a scene which would be sent over the internet onto our editing timeline and we would see it immediately with a scene that had been animated in Kilkenny and Toronto, so it was incredible seeing that kind of coproduction spirit working through the film. The animators were connected through the voice cast because we recorded all our voice casts so the animators could observe the expressions the actors were making as they gave their performances.
How did Angelina Jolie get on board and what has her role been?
NT: She’s an Executive Producer and she came on board back when we were at an early stage of the script so she read an early draft of the screenplay. Angelina has over a decades experience of supporting girl’s education in Afghanistan, she has her role as ambassador for UNHCR, so she very much knew the story we were trying to tell and she felt she would be able to guide us and also as another female filmmaker/director, to go to and to talk about the technical filmmaking process. She was a great guidance in all of that and very much encouraged me to find actors who had very strong voices and as many actors as we could who were connected with Afghanistan; who came from there or whose parents or relatives had or who had experience as refugees. She’s been fantastic for the film.
How do you think animation lends itself to the story?
NT: By In one sense it creates a distance and in another sense it does draw us closer to the character because as an audience we come closer and invest ourselves a little bit more in the character. The more the character looks universal, the more we can invest in it. Animation has many gifts for a story like The Breadwinner it means we can layer our story in a way that children are aware of certain aspects of the story and adults of other aspects. When adults sit down to watch a film like The Breadwinner there is immediately a tension involved because they know about the Taliban and the history involved from the news and have a set of expectations about what is going to happen but children don’t, they watch a character like Parvana and see where they’re similar to her and different to her, so you can have two people sitting next to eachother, a generation apart, having two completely different experiences.
Could you talk a little about animation style?
NT: There were two styles of animation in the film, for Parvana we used a very subtle, classical style of animation, we wanted to bring it back down to the very personal and subtle, small details like a man scratching his beard or Parvana settling herself on the mat or expressions we would’ve seen in the voice cast performance. We wanted those little universal details in it, subtle details like the gait of a woman in Afghanistan as opposed to a western woman or a man walking with his hands behind his back. We have the other style of animation for Parvana’s imagination and storytelling, one style of animation was a break from the other and would contrast, the whole film deals with contrasts.
The Breadwinner is in Uk Cinemas from Friday 25th May.
Interview by Anna Power