Original-Cin Q&A: Animated Afghan empowerment story, The Breadwinner

By: Bonnie Laufer

Irish director Nora Twomey - who co-directed the animated Oscar nominee The Secret of Kells - premiered her debut film as a solo director, The Breadwinner, at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

Based on the best-selling novel by Canadian author Deborah Ellis, the animated feature tells the story of a young girl who passes herself off as a boy, trying to save her father from a prison in Afghanistan and support her family. Angelina Jolie executive produced the film.

Parvana (Saara Chaudry) finds friends as a boy in The Breadwinner

Parvana (Saara Chaudry) finds friends as a boy in The Breadwinner

Original Cin's Bonnie Laufer sat down to discuss the film with director Nora Twomey and Toronto-based teen Saara Chaudry (who voices the lead character Parvana).

ORIGINAL-CIN: The film is based on such a wonderful book. What was it when you first read it that made you want to turn it into an animated feature film?

NORA TWOMEY: “I couldn't put it down. I started on page one, and read the whole thing through and I just was struck by the matter-of-fact way that Deborah Ellis told the story of Parvana. You know, you understood that she was flawed, she had her strengths and you could understand her thought process. She's very culturally, specifically Afghan. But in another sense, she felt like me as a young girl.

“So that was really, really powerful and I knew that I could follow that character through a film, and that that character would lead me to direct this film and direct my whole team.”

OC: Saara, were you familiar with the book before taking on the role?

SAARA CHAUDRY: “Yes, I loved the book, which I read with my mother when I was nine years old. About three years before I even knew about the movie, I had read the book and actually the whole trilogy and the follow-up book My Name is Parvana.

“And I fell in love with the character. Deborah Ellis has been my favorite author since I was probably around nine years old. And I actually got the chance to meet her about a year before the auditions for this movie.

“When I met her I said, 'Are you going to make a movie of this book? Because I would totally watch it!’ And she said that they were thinking about it, and it was still in the works. Then about a year later, I get a call from my agent saying that there's an audition for The Breadwinner. I was completely freaking out and couldn't wait to try out. I just think it was meant to be. Being so familiar with the book, that definitely helped me in creating the character and bringing her to life.”

OC: I wanted to ask you about that, because thank God that your life is not like hers. But how did you envision yourself in her in her place, and how did you get there to do such a wonderful voice performance?

CHAUDRY: “Well, definitely having read the books before helped me to understand where she was coming from. All her emotions, her feelings and all of her relationships with her best friend Shauzia, her mother, her father, her sister - the book definitely brought that to life for me. Having that behind me helped so much. And of course, and having Nora's wonderful direction all the time was definitely a great help.

“Nora was fantastic, and I remember one time when we were recording, she actually brought me to tears – like, in a good way though, to help me with what I didn't understand or to bring me to a sad place.

“She would tell me to think of something that makes me upset. And I think that was very important, always having something that you can relate to. Those genuine emotions really helped me to bring the character to life and make her authentic and real.”

OC: There are many things I loved about how you presented this film, but there are two different sets of animation styles that you chose to use - one to depict the story and one for when Parvana tells her stories. Why was that?

TWOMEY: “I wanted to make the film as beautiful as I possibly could… so that the audience would never pull away. I guess with (harsh) subject matter like this, there's a danger that you might pull away emotionally.

“And certainly, I wanted to give a sense of the power of Parvana's imagination as a storyteller and the culture that she comes from. I wanted to give a sense of the power of that, and to balance the film so that we have a very realistic view of what Kabul would have been like at the time. But we also have this limitless imagination that she has.”

OC: One of your executive producers was Angelina Jolie, how did you get her involved in the project?

TWOMEY: “(Jehane Noujaim) the director of The Square, which was nominated for the Best documentary Oscar in 2014, is also an executive producer on The Breadwinner. And she managed to get the project in front of Angelina. She read the draft of the script and looked at the concept artwork and came on board.”

OC: How hands on was Angelina during the process of making the film?

TWOMEY: “She was a joy to work with and hands-on in a very wise way. She was there in the way that she completely understands a fellow director. She was very much like a mentor to me through the entire process and guided me from our first drafts of the script all the way through to animatics. She knew the budget we had. She knew the restrictions. So she very much tailored her guidance towards what was realistic for us.”