First, Angelina Jolie directed a film about the effect of war on a young girl in Cambodia, First They Killed my Father. Now, she has produced a film set in Afghanistan, saying at the premiere: “There are few countries in the world where it’s harder to be a young girl.”
The Breadwinner, made by Irish film-maker Nora Twomey, is an animation written, produced and directed by women, and adapted from the Canadian bestseller by author Deborah Ellis.
It features the voice of teenage Canadian actor Saara Chaudry as Parvana, an 11-year-old growing up under the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.
When her father is wrongfully arrested, Parvana disguises herself as a boy to save her mother and sisters from starvation, as women are unable to leave their house without a male relative.
Although it’s a story for children, it doesn’t disguise the details of life under the Taliban – including what happens when a woman is caught in the street without a burka.
After its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the movie was nominated for Best Animation at this year’s Oscars, with Jolie, its executive producer, urging a younger generation attending the festival to promote tolerance by “getting to know people in your neighbourhood who have different backgrounds”.
“Diversity is the most wonderful part of our world,” she said.
Twomey had already been nominated twice for Oscars, for her work on Irish animations Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells, when she was approached to direct The Breadwinner.
“The idea of Parvana started to rise within me,” she says.
“You don’t get many stories like this for the screen, particularly with animations, and Deborah Ellis has a way of writing for a young adult which is very unique – she doesn’t talk down to children, she writes in a very matter-of-fact way, and her stories are based upon her experiences in refugee camps in Pakistan during the Taliban era.”
The other great help, according to Twomey, was Jolie, who came in very early on when the writer, Anita Doron, was working on a draft of the script.
“She had more than a decade of experience with Afghanistan. She supports the education of girls there. She also encouraged me to employ as many Afghan voice actors as possible. And she helped me understand the way in which the world has changed since 2001 and how we in the West view these parts of the globe,” says Twomey.
The film-makers also employed Afghan artists and musicians. And the film has been translated into Dari and Pashto, the languages of Afghanistan. The film was screened in Kabul before the Oscars.
“But I don’t want young people to be hit over the head with a ‘message’ film about what girls face in some societies. In many ways I hope the character of Parvana transcends gender,” says Twomey.
“She’s looking at a very serious situation in a very childlike way that I think both girls and boys can relate to. It’s a universal film like that – even as an Irish woman, the conflict in Northern Ireland when I was growing up gave me an outlook on the complexity of war and the vulnerability of peace, and how we should cherish it where we have it.”
Saara Chaudry, who was not much older than the character of Parvana when she played her, says The Breadwinner “opened my eyes to my privileges”.
“I have food, water, education and healthcare that I take for granted and yet other girls around the world don’t have access. I was nine years old when I first read the books and I loved Parvana for her determination and her optimism, I just wanted to have her spirit.
“Since playing her, I have been passionate about trying to help other young girls around the world even if it’s just by donating online to charities or spreading awareness, in whatever small way girls my age can help. It’s just hard to hear of other girls facing problems I could never dream of.”
But Twomey says: “I don’t think The Breadwinner offers any easy answers to the situation of women in Afghanistan, and nor should it.
“The story is a symptom of a situation which has become ingrained in that society. And it’s from generations of hurt. You can’t just come in and impose what you think, you have to empower those young women to transform their own society.
“Right now, standing up to those societal restrictions, you are asking a great deal of women and families and fathers who love their daughters, who wouldn’t want them to lose their lives over a principle. Standing up would have an impact on you, your family and your community.
“These are things we don’t take lightly. We just provide a character in the film who is an embodiment of hope. And hope is what we need to hang on to.”
The Breadwinner is released in the UK on Friday, 25 May.