Voices Rising
An Interview with Nora Twomey, director of The Breadwinner
by Caroline Cao

Animation studio Cartoon Saloon’s The Breadwinner, its first feature-length foray into historical fiction outside of its native Ireland, following such Academy Award-nominated films as The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, is set in the war-torn city of Kabul in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Here, gun-toting guards preach and enforce gender division on the streets, depriving women of education and the agency to leave their houses without male escorts. Eleven-year-old Parvana and her father, a former teacher and war veteran, sell their possessions on the streets to make ends meet. After a Taliban guard, with a lustful eye on the young girl, arrests her father, she and the other women in her family can no longer leave the house legally. To circumvent the law, Parvana dons her late brother’s clothes to both go to the market to buy food and help free her father from prison. Unlike the heroes of Cartoon Saloon’s previous films, who had a mythical kind of magic on their sides, Parvana can only use her imagination.

In her feature directorial debut, Nora Twomey mixes warmth, humor, and darkness. Based on the 2000 young adult series by author and political activist Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner doesn’t shy away from the complexities of Parvana’s environment. Politics and history are always present in the background, and, at one point, Parvana’s father sums up the social reality: “In the chaos, some looked to those who might restore order. But at a great cost.” Although this is a story about one survivor, Twomey oversaw a cross-cultural collaboration, working from a variety of Afghan citizens’ testimonies. I spoke with Twomey on developing the balance and weaving in many voices.

Reverse Shot: You co-directed The Secret of Kells and worked on Song of the Sea. How did your previous work prepare you to direct your first feature?

Nora Twomey: I had a lot of preparation. I had 15 years to direct The Breadwinner. I started with my short films From Darkness and Backwards Boy before helping Tomm Moore with Secret of Kells and working as head of story for Song of the Sea. Those were gentle introductions to the art of the storytelling. By the time of The Breadwinner, I was quite self-assured. I’ve come to the realization that directing isn’t about imposing your views, it’s about encouraging the team to have the sense of ownership over their skills and talents. It’s paid off wonderfully. They really cared about the characters. When they went home at night, they continued to think of the work and brought solutions to the table the next day. The Breadwinner was a culmination of many years of storytelling, and trial and errors, and learning from mistakes.

RS: What were some parts of the original YA book series by Deborah Ellis that didn’t carry over to the film?

NT: In terms of transferring Parvana from the novel to the screen, we were mainly concerned with emotional fatigue. Parents or teachers reading with children can create an emotional security for a young person. That’s a completely different thing on the screen, as there’s nothing to protect you in a way. I was mindful of our younger viewers. I am a mother of two young boys, so I was mindful of telling the story responsibly to children. We pulled back on some of the scenes described in the book. We show hardly any violence onscreen. We’re looking at character reaction to traumatic events rather than the events themselves. We made different versions of the film in rough storyboards to find those sensibilities so that the audience didn’t emotionally disengage.

I was also aware that Deborah published her book in 2000 before the Taliban regime fell in Afghanistan. It was also before 9/11, before the attacks on the rest of the world. It was before we understood that intervening in other countries’ political affairs has many repercussions intended and not. I made sure that the film acknowledged that. The Breadwinner is a simple story about a young girl who loves her father, but there are layers that acknowledge the complexities of the political situation in Afghanistan, children growing up in conflict, and the fact there are no easy answers. In the book, Shauzia and Parvana talk about meeting at the top of the Eiffel Tower. It didn’t seem appropriate to have a western spot, so we changed it to something more naturalistic, which is the whole idea of them meeting at the ocean. It ties to other elements, like the moon and tides and the name of Razaq’s late wife.

RS: Humor and horror coexist, and fantasy and reality are at war in Parvana’s mind. How did you and the animators maintain the balance?

NT: In the pages of Deborah’s book, Parvana isn’t just one aspect of a character; she was a fully formed human. She would feel annoyed at her sister and then go into a serious situation. We wanted to carry that into the film. Anita Doron, the screenwriter, has a wonderful way with language and dialogue that allows for that playfulness. We were aware from conversations with Afghan people that humor has a significant role in Afghan society. Our cast members, many of them from Afghanistan, helped create the sensibilities of the film. Finding the balance is a question of finding the timing. I would sit at the editing machine and play with it. The timing is not something you can intellectually find. It comes from your gut. The film revealed itself at different stages because the voice actors added a level of believability. Then the animators added in the compositing, lighting, and the way the dust flies. Mychael Danna’s score indicates when the mood changes. Everyone plays a part in determining the tonal shift.

RS: Through digital animation, The Breadwinner beautifully sustains the illusion of paper cutout animation. What is the difference between directing the cutout sequences, like that of the Elephant King, and the hand-drawn sequences?

NT: They were quite different. For the hand-drawn sequences of Parvana’s life in Kabul, we wanted a supple style of animation that understood her mortality and the vulnerability of life. The performances are naturalistic so that life felt all the more precious. When we went into Parvana’s imagination, it was limitless. It was the place to explore Afghan history, the colors in Afghan artifacts, the music. We could have a livelier style of animation. We imagined Parvana would move characters like she would move dolls. We looked at making the cutout animation practically under a camera. We brought out a French cutout artist Janis Aussel, who did a lot of tests. But it became obvious we couldn’t afford the richness of the practical effects, so we went digital. But we still set limits. Anything we couldn’t do practically under a camera, we weren’t going to do.

RS: The Afghan Women’s Organization was brought in to enrich the film’s perspective. How did you apply individual voices to enrich the narrative?

NT: That happened over many years, going back to the novel, which was based on testimonies of women in refugee camps on the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Anita Doron wrote the screenplay in collaboration with Aman Mojadidi, an Afghan-American artist who lived for over a decade in Kabul, and worked with the Afghan organization alongside different creative consultants. Some of the Afghan actors contributed their own lines based on experiences in their childhood. Mychael Danna worked with the Afghanistan National Institute of Music and incorporated the voices of many Afghan girls of the Nahid Women’s Choir. Every time there is hope in this film, we hear young girls singing in the score. Last summer, a group of young women recorded their voices a week after a number of people died in a tragic suicide bombing.

RS: The film ends on a hopeful note, though not everything is resolved. How did you arrive at this somewhat uncertain ending?

NT: We were through a few animatics by the time we understood the ending. The ending came from conversations with many people, including producer Angelina Jolie. When we were reading an early screenplay draft, her concern was finding the balance of hope and reality, not doing a disservice to actual people’s experience in the Taliban era and the complexities of the political situation. That’s why we left it open-ended while celebrating Parvana’s bravery. We didn’t want to create an unrealistic ending or give weight to any one political perspective. Ask two different Afghans about the future of Afghanistan and you’ll get two different answers.