Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has been making a name for itself with its small, yet critically mighty, roster of films. Song of the Sea (2014) and The Secret of Kells (2009), both nominated for Academy Awards, mined Irish folklore and culture for source material that was brought to life by Cartoon Saloon’s exquisitely hand-drawn signature style. But now the animation studio is opening its global and storytelling apertures with The Breadwinner.
Based on Deborah Ellis’s young adult novel, The Breadwinner tells the story of Parvana, an 11-year-old Afghan girl whose father is arrested by the Taliban on trumped-up charges. Since women aren’t allowed to leave their homes unescorted or to earn money in Taliban-controlled Kabul, Parvana decides to cut off her hair and pose as a boy in order to provide for her family, and find a way to free her father from prison.
Although what The Breadwinner deals with is inherently political, director and Cartoon Saloon co-founder Nora Twomey didn’t want that to be the focus at all.
“Afghanistan has such an incredibly complicated geopolitical history. I didn’t want to make a documentary,” Twomey says. “I wanted to make a story about family and the strength of one young girl, and the idea of hope and what you do when your whole world falls apart. For me, these were the most important things.”
At the same time, Twomey was highly careful of not being an outsider who just wants to breeze past issues that seem too complex to dissect in a meaningful way.
“Certainly researching this film almost incapacitated me in terms of thinking how do we structure it in a way that shows hope but doesn’t belittle the actual experiences of people who have been through a lot of the things we depicted in the film,” Twomey says. “The history of Afghanistan is in the film. The political situation at the time that the film is set is also in the film. It’s there but it’s just not first and foremost because politics changes from decade to decade, from regime to regime. At the end of the day, it’s not even really about the Taliban. It’s about how women and children suffer in any society where you have inequality.”
The Breadwinner isn’t the type of light-hearted fare that’s so prevalent in mainstream animated movies. That shouldn’t suggest Pixar or DreamWorks don’t incorporate emotionally driven story arcs in their films–it’s that so often said story arcs are embedded in fantastical surroundings and characters that directly serve the purpose of animation. The Breadwinner, however, is so grounded in reality that it could’ve easily been live-action. But it’s precisely that juxtaposition of content and medium that Twomey finds so powerful in storytelling.
“I’m very interested in the space where, if you take a picture of somebody sitting down at a table and you draw a picture of somebody sitting down at a table, they say two completely different things to the viewer and you have a different emotional response to each of those things,” Twomey says. “There’s something to the way that [co-art director] Reza Riahi draws characters’ faces–with a few lines he expresses so much. I think that they’re easier to empathize with. They’re less ‘other.’ These are all things that help stop our audience from emotionally disengaging from what could be very traumatic. The more artistically you deal with a subject matter like this the more people will stay engaged with it and the more the people stay engaged with it, the further they get with your characters the more empathy that they’ll have for the characters as well.”
The Breadwinner is a remarkable addition to Cartoon Saloon’s resume. Marrying the studio’s animation style to stories that can have real and far-reaching impact is certainly welcomed in the animated film industry, but Twomey says that isn’t necessarily the studio’s guiding principle.
“We are very much led by story and by challenges, be it a visual challenge ourselves or to challenge ourselves with the characters that we want to explore,” she says “It’s not a very big conscious idea to make films that are quite different or expand. It’s more to continue looking for interesting characters, and wherever that takes us is where we’ll go.”