Using Her Imagination: Nora Twomey's 'The Breadwinner' follows an Afghan girl's struggle for her family

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A children’s novel penned by Canadian author and activist Deborah Ellis about an eleven-year-old Afghan girl named Parvana who pretends to be a boy in order to financially provide for her family under Taliban rule captured the attention of Aircraft Pictures, which approached Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon. The two companies partnered with Melusine Prods. in Luxembourg and gained the support of Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie to produce The Breadwinner, directed by filmmaker and Cartoon Saloon co-founder Nora Twomey (The Secret of Kells).

“Deborah Ellis went to Pakistan and interviewed a lot of Afghan women who were in refugee camps and that’s what she based her book on,” explained Twomey while attending the world premiere of The Breadwinner at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. “I looked at the whole history of Southeast Asia where the film is set and spent a year researching the whole thing. It was almost overwhelming, because the film is based on looking at thousands of years where you have empires of different sorts coming in and out of Afghanistan trying to control the area strategically and understanding that on a micro level through families. These were powerful ideas to get into a movie. In one sense, we were looking at The Breadwinner in terms of its global and political relevance, but on the other hand you’re looking at a child’s love for her father and her relationship with her annoying big sister.”

Whereas the novel strictly deals with the daily struggles in Kabul, screenwriter Anita Doron incorporated another narrative referred to as the Story World, where Parvana tells the tale of the Elephant King which mirrors her own journey to support her family and have her wrongly incarcerated father released from prison. “From the earliest points when I was talking to the screenwriter Anita Doron, we wanted an imaginary world for Parvana so that we could make the Real World starkly beautiful and juxtapose that with the interior life of imagination and storytelling where we had no restrictions.” The goal of the Story World was to provide a visceral understanding of the culture and history of Afghanistan. “Anita looked at Afghan myths, legends and folklore, and realized that there were a lot of similarities where she grew up in Hungary as well with Irish myths. In all of these cultures, we find these archetypal journeys for heroes who have to go through trials. These things help us with our daily struggles, whether they be films that we all go to see in the cinema or myths which are thousands of years old.”

Different animation styles were utilized to distinguish between the Real and Story Worlds. “I had always thought we could use cut-out animation for Parvana’s imagination,” explains Twomey. “In Kilkenny, our expertise is 2D hand-drawn animation, so the cut-out was rather daunting. We had French cut-out artist Janis Aussel come and do tests with us. She would take Reza Riahi’s [co-art director along with Ciaran Duffy] character designs, cut them out, and shoot them practically. Reza would take those and draw on top of them again or create new material. It was beautiful but looked like a student short film. The brief I gave to Jeremy Purcell, who directed the Story World sequences, was to imagine that you threw someone into jail for 25 years, gave them every practical equipment that they could possibly have, and this was their life’s work. Aircraft Pictures, our co-producers in Canada, found Guru Studio in Toronto, which were up to the challenge of figuring out how the Story World was going to work with us.”

A theatrical approach was adopted for the lighting and staging of the Story World scenes. “In the Real World, all of our shadows are on the characters because they are a storytelling element, so we would draw them by hand. Kabul has muted brown and honey colors, whereas in the Story World we have greens, reds and black. We do represent the darker side of Parvana’s imagination, which are the things that maybe she fears. We definitely used a lot of jewel-like colors in the Story World. Afghanistan has such a rich history, so [we referenced] a lot of the artefacts. Going back thousands of years, you see these wonderful turquoises, greens and golds.”

The character designs make use of simple lines. “Early on in the development of the project, I had met Reza Riahi, who is a Persian art director. At the time he was studying at La Poudrière in France. In a few strokes of his pen he can create characters that have so much going on behind their eyes. Reza drew a couple hundred characters before we finished. We were trying to get the look of Parvana correct and looked at Saara Chaudry [the actor who plays Parvana], the shape of her face, and lots of Afghan girls.”

“Assistant director Stuart Shankly came to Kilkenny for the first nine months when we were on storyboards and then went to Toronto to oversee things at Guru Studio,” Twomey notes. “Stuart created a situation where I didn’t even see things until it was into its sixth pass; he was sure of the sensibility of the film and was ruthless as well. If someone was getting carried away with what they were doing with an effect that it became the focal point in a scene, whereas we were supposed to be looking at a character’s eyes or a little gesture that makes the scene the reason why it was written in the screenplay in the first place, he would spot that straightaway.” The animation was evenly divided between Studio 352 in Luxemburg and Cartoon Saloon.

“As a means of communication with the team, I acted out all of the parts of the film and did a director’s voiceover so that every animator would understand at least what I felt was important in the scene, and the reason why the scene is in the film, down to the particulars of the little gestures that make us feel that these drawings are real.

“Certainly, my biggest challenge on the film was not being able to go to Afghanistan myself and not being able to time-travel back to the period,” Twomey confides. “There was not much photographic reference as to what it was like during that period, because photography was banned. That was difficult. Having to make sure that I talked to enough people who understood the time that we portray in the film so that it could be authentic as possible and making sure that the time pressures never got to the point if someone pointed out and said, ‘That wouldn’t happen at that time.’ Or a prop doesn’t look like it should exist in Kabul. We were always respectful of that and responded to that. It was important.”