In a time of deepening sensitivity about cultural appropriation, an animated film set in Afghanistan, made largely by Westerners and based on a Western source, might raise some red flags. But I think “The Breadwinner” is worth celebrating, in part because it is a work that in some ways qualifies as reportage.
Deborah Ellis, the Canadian author on whose children’s novel this movie is based, traveled in the late ’90s to Pakistan, where she interviewed Afghan refugees fleeing war and Taliban rule. The hero of her book and its sequels is Parvana, a young girl we first see in this movie with her father, an out-of-work teacher. They are selling some prized possessions in a market square when Parvana’s father is arrested without charges.
Forbidden by roaming Taliban from so much as walking outside by herself, Parvana disguises herself as a boy to provide for her mother, older sister and baby brother. As she deals with ever-mounting difficulties, she expands on a story she and her father had started to concoct before his arrest. Depicted in cutout animation style, it tells of a young prince out to confront an elephant king.
Trailer: ‘The Breadwinner’
Harsh disappointments befall the characters, and they are depicted frankly, but in a way that encourages young viewers to form an affinity with the characters rather than cringe at terror. The director, Nora Twomey, has a nuanced way with characterization and action, and the voice cast, led by Saara Chaudry of “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” is terrific. In its alternating of Parvana’s day-to-day struggle with the tale she tells herself, the movie doesn’t promote bromides about stories and storytelling transcending reality. Rather, it demonstrates that the way imagination refracts reality can provide not only solace but also real-world strategy.