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‘The Breadwinner’: How Nora Twomey Made an Animated Oscar Contender About Female Empowerment with Help from Angelina Jolie

The GKids drama about a young Afghan girl posing as a boy tackles serious political issues. It's a frontrunner for the animated Oscar.

Nora Twomey, Saara Chaudry and Angelina Jolie'The Breadwinner' film premiere, Los Angeles, USA - 20 Oct 2017

Nora Twomey, Saara Chaudry and Angelina Jolie at “The Breadwinner” premiere.

Matt Baron/REX/Shutterstock

Animation

With her debut feature, “The Breadwinner,” which took home both Grand Prize and Audience awards at the inaugural Animation Is Film Festival, Irish director Nora Twomey has delivered a powerful animated movie that should yield GKids’ 14th Oscar nomination. The drama tackles a serious story of political oppression with sensitivity and hope.

Based on the popular YA novel by Deborah Ellis, “The Breadwinner” concerns a strong-willed 11-year-old Afghan girl who poses as a boy to help her family survive under threat from the Taliban after her father is imprisoned as a dissident.

Balancing the Personal with the Political

The biggest storytelling challenge was respecting the time period that had passed between the publication of the novel in 2000 and the start of the project in 2014. “It was such an extraordinary time in the world,” Twomey said, “everything from 9/11 to the fall of the Taliban, the rise of ISIS, and the resurgence of the Taliban.”

“The Breadwinner”

Twomey, from Cartoon Saloon (the Oscar-nominated “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea”), said she was draw to the courage of 11-year-old Parvana (voiced by Canadian newcomer Saara Chaudry): “She’s going through extraordinary circumstances at an extraordinary time in an extraordinary country, and, for me, the challenge of bringing that to the screen was a privileged position to be in. I wanted to make a film about a young girl who loves her dad, who has arguments with her big sister, and is just driven by this incredible spirit.”

The Angelina Jolie Factor

A co-production of Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenny, Ireland, Aircraft Pictures in Toronto, and Melusine Productions in Luxembourg, “The Breadwinner” was aided early on by the invaluable contributions of executive producer Angelina Jolie, who is in the Oscar conversation this year for Netflix Cambodian drama “First They Killed My Father.” Jolie offered advice about hiring voice actors in Toronto, and the intricacies of Afghanistan behavior, where people act more as a community than as individuals. And, she told IndieWire, she helped Twomey navigate through the infrastructure of Afghanistan along with the calibration of story beats.

“The Breadwinner”

Achieving a Naturalistic Look and Behavior

“The Breadwinner,” unlike Cartoon Saloon’s previous two movies about Irish mythologies, contains a naturalism in both look and behavior, becoming more intense as the story progresses. “There’s a character arc for Parvana, where she starts out as somebody who’s very internal, who almost wants to disappear into the landscape,”said Twomey, “to where she ends up toward the end of the film where she’s somebody who belongs to Kabul. You notice this particularly in Parvana’s more assertive body language and ability to engage people with eye contact.”

“The Breadwinner”

Twomey’s starting point was Chaudry, who, at 11, was the same age as Parvana when she recorded her voice. “Seeing what Saara was able to comprehend as an actor, as an artist, and as a child gave me an understanding of how to craft our film [in a way] that doesn’t take for granted what children are afraid of or not afraid of,” Twomey said.

The Cut-Out Look of the Inner World

Stylistically, apart from the real world look, there was a secondary world of storytelling when Parvana passes on a fable of childhood empowerment from her father to her younger brother. For this cut-out look, which took advantage of a special character-rig called Moho, the director turned to Toronto-based Guru Studio for the lighting, exporting hundreds of layers per character to achieve texture and depth using Nuke compositing software.

“The Breadwinner”

“Don’t be afraid of making flawed films if there’s something beautiful in those flaws,” said Twomey. But some of the ugly brutality from the novel (such as cutting off hands) was too graphic for the movie. “We screened the film at animatics stage to school children in Kilkenny and Toronto to make sure we had the balance right,” she added.

Finding Inner Strength

The most difficult scene, though, involved Purvana’s mother regaining her strength to stand down a Taliban death threat. “This is one of the scenes that’s more difficult for adults to watch, and younger people look at Purvana and take strength from her reaction and response,” Twomey said.

“The Breadwinner”

For Twomey, it’s always about not talking down to an audience. “For me,  cultural collaboration is an incredible thing, and I get funding to tell incredible stories. So why not make stories like this?”

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