The Breadwinner: A Parable for Women's Empowerment By Caitlin Long

The Breadwinner, based off the bestselling novel of the same name, written by Deborah Ellis, tells the emotional journey of Parvana, an 11-year old girl, to reunite her family with her father through sacrifice and facing gender inequality. The film was directed by Nora Twomey and released in 2017. The film won various awards including "best animated feature" by Toronto Film Critics and Los Angelos Film Critics, as well as nominated for a Golden Globe for "best animated feature." (Desowitz, 2018). The film was praised for its visuals and the way it represented real life issues through animation with such truth. Twomey and Angelina Jolie used an Irish animation company, called Cartoon Saloon. Jolie was a big part in the filmmaking because of her background in Afghanistan, she built schools for Afghan (Desowitz, 2018).

The film is set in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2001. The story begins with Parvana and her Baba, her father, selling some items as well as offering to read or write something for someone. They are currently under Taliban rule which means women are not allowed outside unless accompanied by a man. Her father, Ali Badshah, was a former teacher and soldier in another war that ended in the loss of a leg. Ali is an important figure in Parvana's life. She loves the stories that he tells, mostly to distract her from the horrors of what is going on around them and as a source to find strengh. While at the market, Parvana unintentionally, draws attention to herself, something that is forbidden under the Taliban rule, and causes both of them to yelled at by Taliban soldiers, one of which was an angry former student of Ali. Later that night, the same group of soldiers barged into their house and arrested Parvana's Baba without cause leaving behind Parvana, her older sister, baby brother and ill wife. This leaves it's own set of challenges because they are all women. They are not allowed to go outside and purchase food alone and the son is still too young to even talk. The next day Parvana and her mother try to go to the prison to release Ali but they get caught which ends in the mother being beaten by a soldier. Later, Parvana tries to get water for her family but is chased back home by Taliban soldiers.

The mother decides to call her second cousins that live in a safer part of Afghanistan to come help to provide but Parvana takes matters into her own hands by cutting her hair to disguise as a boy and dressing in her late brother's old clothes. She goes to the market to buy food and realizes quickly how differently she is treated now that she is a boy, overjoyed by the freedoms. She runs into an old friend, Shauzia, who had also disguised herself to look like a boy in order to provide for herself since her father was unreliable. Shauzia says "you can do anything you want when you look like a boy!" Parvana also starts telling a story called "The Elephant King" to her youngest brother to soothe him in these tough times. Eventually Parvana, makes enough money that she feels would be a good bribe to get her dad freed but it doesn't work. A few days later, Parvana finds a connection to a prison worker that will help her see her dad again. She goes to the prison, unaware that the war is coming closer and closer to her. The mother's cousin arrives at their doorstep a day early with urgency to leave right that second but they don't want to leave without Parvana. Parvana finds out the war is here when she makes to the prison but she gets to see her Baba right before he dies.

The film is beautiful, sad, encouraging, angering and hopeful all in one. Nora Twomey depicted Parvana's and her family's struggles in a way that deeply impacts the viewer. She did this by choosing to do an animation instead of a live action, as well as choosing certain mis-en-scene elements. By analyzing the cinematography elements such as lighting, sounds, and camera movements allows the viewer to see the theme of gender inequality, specifically the lack of women's rights. By following Parvana's journey with her family in her shadow, the audience is able to see their frustration with women's injustice while they build up courage to get what they need.

By portraying Parvana's story through an animation rather than a film with real actors on screen, it enables the viewers to form a deeper emotional connection with the characters. It lets the film makers tell a difficult story without the viewer get drawn away by the dangers of the situations (Nunez 2018). Twomey also stated that "if The Breadwinner was live action it would be very easy to emotionally disconnect from the film and to try to protect yourself,” I think that’s the power of animation." It This small separation between cartoon and reality also lets the viewer become more receptive to the horrific stories and events. Animation additionally allows for the "emotional depth of the film to be deeper since the true reference for the pain that the animated character is going through is ultimately personified in the viewer himself" (Nunez 2018). My emotional experience with film reflected what was trying to be done with animation.

The animated characters were created in a way that showed when they expressed emotions, but Twomey showed it very subtlety. Throughout the movies, the viewer would notice a few lines or even just a single line underneath the eye, would show how worried, stressed, angry they all were and even their age.

Before further analyzing the film, one should note the importance of music played throughout the movie. The music, composed of Mychael and Jeff Danna is both lyrical and expressive (Kermode, 2018). They blended eastern instruments with western orchestrations as it "moves from pieces echoing the street sounds of Kabul to the more expansive evocations of the enchanted story-world" (Kermode 2018). The music was actually recorded with the girls at Afghanistan National Institute of Music which is a school in Kabul formed after the Taliban regime (Scoring The Breadwinner: The Sound of Parvana with Jeff and Mychael Danna 2018).

One of the first scenes that we see, is Parvana and her dad selling items near the market. The streets and market places are "as vividly realized as anything from the Israeli animated documentary Waltz With Bashir" although it is filtered to capture the "misty 'honey light'" in the morning in Kabul (Kermode, 2018). While her dad is talking aloud, to tell others what they offer, Parvana sits next to him closed off, avoiding eye contact. Close ups are utilized to show Parvana's reactions to the surrounding situations. At this time Parvana looks like she is uncomfortable being outside of the house even though she is allowed since she is with her father. She seems very kept to herself. By avoiding eye contact and any unnecessary movements, she has some fear of the situation. We also see the fear in the small lines near her eyes. The utilization of low key lighting also symbolizes the dark times that Parvana is experiencing in Kabul.

The camera switches to an establishing shot that shows exactly what Parvana is looking at while she feels uncomfortable. There are many men and boys working in the market and walking across the screen. There are also Taliban soldiers in sight. This is an important shot because it shows the setting that she is in. No women are in the shot because they are oppressed by the Taliban and forced to remained inside.
This next shot is what startles Parvana and how the viewer gets its first sense on how the Taliban soldiers act towards anyone that serves women. The lighting is still low key and predominant colors are yellows, browns and greens. The camera zooms in after the men have cleared the path to a storefront where a soldier is scolding another man for selling to a woman. The soldier is holding a whip in his hand. The camera switches to a close up shot up and we see Parvana direct her eyes in that direction, but immediately continue looking down while she pulls her head covering over her face to hide. Her body language suggests that she is threatened by the aggressiveness of the soldiers.

By switching camera shots from close ups of Parvana to a wider shot of what is going on in front of her, shows Parvana's emotional response more clearly because we are able to see the subtle details on her face. We also see that when the solider threatens the other man, nobody turns their head or acknowledges what is going on and this could be because they are men and there's no reason to feel threatened. Parvana on the other hand, doesn't have the same basic rights as her male counterparts.

After her father notices her discomfort, he tells her to focus on her studies to ease her mind from what is going on around them. Her dad instills a feeling of women empowerment onto her. Women are no longer able to get an education in this society, but since he was a teacher, he values education and wants her too as well. This same scene is where we learn the importance of story telling in her family and how her father uses it as a sense of empowerment as well. The stories are in "sharp contrast to the more realistically rendered world of Parvana’s day-to-day life" (Kermode, 2018).

This shot is one of the first story that her dad tells us in the film. It shows four children playing in the park. The sky is blue, trees are green, and have budding leaves. It shows a sense of calmness, happiness and normalcy. The girls aren't wearing headdresses either showing that this is pre- Taliban takeover. Her dad says that this is how it used to be before education was devalued for women. Women had equal rights at school. Parvana's mom was a college educated woman herself. As he describes how Afghanistan turns into a war zone, the camera pans right, following the children who are holding hands as the scene behind them changes drastically.

The lighting of the scene is now low key, very dark, using purples and blacks. The children are holding hands as they run away from the bright sunny sky shown in the previous shot. We only see the the shadows of the children as they keep running to the right of the screen, the camera follows them as the background behind them changes again. As they run, the sky lights up every so often to show the bombs going off in the distance.

As the camera pans right again, we now see fire in the distance, giving the city a pink and purple glow. Still, low key lighting as the kids run by in the shadows. This series of shots happens about 30 seconds time, it resembles how fast the situation became uneasy in Afghanistan as the Taliban took over.

And finally, the last shot of the sequence which was voiced over by Taliban soldiers saying what rights and freedoms of women were being taken away. This shot shows four women in headdresses behind jail bars, symbolizing that women were so stripped of freedoms that it might as well be jail. The coverings of the eyes in the shot are also jail bars. This shot fades showing just the hexagonal shape of the bars on the blue dresses. And zooms out to see on blue headdress until it disappears from the screen.

These shots are important to show the rise of the Taliban and how the group views women. After Parvana's dad is arrested, Parvana and her mom leave the house, knowing it would be dangerous, to release him from prison since he is their only male provider. This is one of the first signs of courage we see from Parvana and her mother and where Parvana's dedicated journey begins. On their way to the prison, they are caught by a Taliban soldiers and her mother is beaten. Parvana, seeing her mother hurting, and depressed, she takes matters into her own hands and goes to the market by herself in hopes some will serve a young girl without a father. When this fails, she makes herself look like a boy in order to provide for the family. Parvana uses the story telling that her dad valued, to find strength. This is a common theme throughout the movie. The stories usually mirror Parvana's internal battles and emotions throughout the movie to empower herself and find her father. She realizes, that if she is confident and has internal strength she can do anything she sets her mind too.

This is an over the shoulder shot of Parvana, now dressed as a boy in the market. This is one of the first instances in the film after the arrest of her father, that Kabul is depicted as bright with blue skies and lighter colors of buildings. The lighting is important to note throughout this film because it often sets the tone for the scene more than any other aspect of cinematography. In this shot Parvana recognizes the "boy" pouring the tea, who is also a girl and dressed as a boy. She chose the boy name of "Deliwar" meaning brave. This name choice is significant because it shows how the women had to empower themselves through anyway they can. By choosing this name, she is reminded of why she turned herself into looking like a boy and allows her to stay strong during the tough times. This shows self-empowerment through names.

The next step of Parvana's journey to freeing her father is to sell what her father was selling in the market to make more money. At first this is a nerve wracking experience to her because it's her first time out dressed as a boy but she finds comfort in Deliwar going through a similar experience. Meeting Deliwar was a turning point in Parvana's journey because they were able share similar experiences and lean on one another, which is talked about later in this presentation.

This 3 person shot comes after Parvana went to the market for the first time dressed as a boy. Parvana wants to go to the prison to free her dad, but her older sister is annoyed about the idea and her mother is worried, as told by their expressive facial reactions. By using a 3 person shot we are able to see the excitement in Parvana's eyes that is rare up to this point in the film compared to the views of her mother who is suffering because of the oppression and her older sister who believes risks are a bad idea. In this shot, we see the height difference between the characters, which is significant because the mom and sister are literally looking down at Parvana as if what she says isn't that important and also a little crazy. Parvana is looking up at them with a sense of strength and hope for change in the near future by creating the change she wishes to see by herself.

As Parvana is selling items in the market, she is approached by a Taliban soldier, casting a dark shadow over her. He asks where the man (father) is. Parvana is scared but she manages to look him in the eyes and tell him that her father was arrested. This shot is at eye level of Parvana, to show how she views the soldier. But because she is able to look him in the eyes without be too threatened, it shows the courage that she has built up until this point.

The shot switches to a close up of the soldier, with sun shining on half of his face. The solider has broad shoulders, and an elongated face and ears. He as long eye lines showing exhaustion and maybe even stress. He's wearing brown and green, which is continuous of the major colors used in this movie. The shot used is a low angle shot, used to show Parvana's perspective looking at the man. It makes the man look strong and powerful.

This is a two shot, with high key lighting. Throughout the film, Twomey has used lighting to represent different parts of Parvana's journey. When something positive is happening to her, the lighting is brighter and high key, while when something negative is occurring, lighting is low key. The soldier, who will also help Parvana find her dad later in the film, asks Parvana to read something for him, unknowing that she is a girl. This is a powerful moment for Parvana. Although she is not supposed to be educated, she is while this soldier, who is enforcing the rules and wants everyone to hail him, is actually less knowledgeable than she is. Education can be viewed as a source of power here. This is a moment in the movie where Parvana realizes how valuable education is and just how powerful it can be. When Parvana made herself look like a boy, she was a little hesitant but her mom always reminded her that she has more education than most people in Afghanistan and here we see that.

Later in the film, this man comes back to her asks her to teach him how to write in exchange for a large sum of money.

This is one of the interactions with Deliwar. Another two shot is used here to show Parvana and Deliwar talking about what they would do with their money. Deliwar fantasizes about making enough money, escaping Kabul and seeing the ocean to work for herself there. Parvana is inspired by the idea but she would rather save her Baba first than do something for herself. I see this as Parvana being empowered by her father, and sees working for herself as something of a betrayal. Deliwar and Parvana work in the fields together, that requires a lot of physical strength. Although they find the work hard, they are able to finish it. Twomey utilizes a lot of two shots to show Deliwar and Parvana together. We also see them supporting each other in hardships, because they have a lot of similar struggles. Parvana uses stories to empower Deliwar also.

This shot is powerful because we see the two girls in "a landscape of abandoned tanks that becomes a haunting playground" in which they share their dreams about wanting to watch the moon move the ocean, "conjuring a Shawshank Redemption-style tide of hope that flows like a river through the narrative" (Kermode, 2018).

A shot with four people is used here. Deliwar is being hurt by the same soldier that arrested Parvana's dad. Parvana has no fear and fights back to help her friend. In the background of the shot we see smoke coming from factory pipes, and they sky is dark grey. The soldier hurting them is clearly mad as seen by the expression on his face. In the corner of the screen, is the soldier's boss who is just laughing at how physically weak Parvana and Deliwar seem.

Another three shot is used here, with a low angle and darker lighting. The soldier is furious at Parvana for tugging on his arm in the previous in shot and so he turns to her and looks her in the eyes and yells at her. During that time, he recognizes her and realizes that she is the daughter of the man he arrested. Before he can finish his sentence, Parvana hits him in the face and knocks him over. The girls take off running. There is a lot of loud sounds in this scene, complimented with background music that with a quick beat that gets louder as the solider chases them.

There is rapid switching of camera shots to show the anxiety and the adrenaline that the girls are experiencing. Heavy breathing is also heard as the camera goes in and out of close ups of the girls and then back to the soldier. The scene is very tense as a result of the rapid changing camera angles and sounds. The next few shots are close ups of the soldier that chased them and his other Taliban people. He reveals to us that he is fearful as well. At the end of the scene, we learn that the war is starting, but that is unknown to girls, but this is what causes fear

Parvana goes against her mothers advice that is too dangerous to go to the prison. Parvana is the most courageous here than she was at any point in the movie. Using a three shot we are able to see Parvana in the foreground, leading, and her mother and baby brother in the dark background of the house. The music used in this scene is soft Afghan music to symbolize the emotions of everyone involved. The camera follows Parvana as she walks down the porch and then into the streets. Parvana finds Deliwar to say goodbye and asks if she wants to escape Kabul with them. Although Deliwar cannot leave, she gives Parvana her hard earned money to help see her dad. Deliwar sacrificed something for herself for the greater good of another woman.

The next scene is Parvana's family leaving Kabul without any other options. The mom and sister tried to fight the cousin to wait for Parvana but he insists they have to leave now. The scene involves yelling from the man and the baby crying. This is also another tense scene. This shot shows that it's just the 4 of them in what seems like a ghost town. People are fleeing because of the war. Despite that threat, the mother and sister still try to stand up to him to get him to wait but it fails.
A three person shot is used to show the man that helped her back in Kabul and the prison guard that is threatening her unless she leaves. Parvana is the smallest person in the shot. Parvana doesn't back down from the prison guard showing a tremendous amount of courage to fight for what she wants. We start to see the sunset glow, which shows that Parvana will return late to home, if she makes it. The man that helped her lies, and says "its alright, this is my son" and allows Parvana to see her father. Not giving into the higher power throughout this movie really helped Parvana accomplish what she wanted.
"Raise your words not your voice. It is the rain that makes the flowers grow, not thunder."

The ending to this film felt abrupt and somewhat tense. It ended at the start of a war and the family was separated. A quote that Parvana said to her dad when they were talking was "Raise your words not your voice. It is the rain that makes the flowers grow, not thunder." This quote shows that it is what you say that matters, and not how loud you say it. Growing flowers with just thunder would either kill them or hold them back from growing. I think that this is one of the main lessons that Parvana learned from her father who strongly believed in education and wanted Parvana to be a well rounded, empowered woman. Parvana's story shines a spotlight on how the basic rights for women such as access to education, freedom to do what they want and go wherever they want was absent at this time. We see that education was Parvana's source of empowerment throughout the film.

Following Parvana's journey we were able to see how the different events that she went through, was able to empower her in some way. The stories that she told throughout the movie sometimes represented her internal battles but it was able to give her a sense of comfort and strength. The use of lighting was relied on very heavily as the film followed Parvana. Camera angles showed how Parvana viewed people and how they viewed her. The colors used and the overall setting was somewhat realistic. The buildings in Kabul are clustered together and are usualy brown to tannish colors. Afghanistan also has a substantial amount of desert land which is represented in the movie.

This film had numerous parabolic elements but I felt women's empowerment was the strongest one. Parvana had to go through a lot to accomplish what she wanted. Other parables that could be analyzed from the film include, women's rights, courage, and resilience. Without empowering herself or the other people around her, Parvana wouldn't have built up enough mental strength to find her dad. Overall, women's empowerment was the most predominant parable throughout the film. Parvana used her educational background, that she wasn't supposed to have, to help her along the way.


Brady, Tara. “Angelina Jolie, the Breadwinner and Me. By Nora Twomey.” The Irish Times, The Irish Times, 19 May 2018, www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/angelina-jolie-the-breadwinner-and-me-by-nora-twomey-1.3494812.

Desowitz, Bill. “'The Breadwinner': How Nora Twomey Made an Animated Oscar Contender About Female Empowerment with Help from Angelina Jolie.” IndieWire, IndieWire, 22 Oct. 2018, www.indiewire.com/2017/11/the-breadwinner-nora-twomey-angelina-jolie-animated-oscar-contender-1201897370/.

Kermode, Mark. “The Breadwinner Review – a Girl's Courage on the Streets of Kabul.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 May 2018, www.theguardian.com/film/2018/may/27/the-breadwinner-review-nora-twomey-deborah-ellis-kabul.

Nunez, R. (2018, February 24). The Breadwinner: It's Rain That Grows Flowers, Not Thunder. Retrieved from https://theirrelevant.org/its-rain-that-grows-flowers-not-thunder/

Scoring The Breadwinner: The Sound of Parvana with Jeff and Mychael Danna. (2018, June 06). Retrieved May 18, 2020, from http://magazine.scoreit.org/scoring-the-breadwinner-the-sound-of-parvana-with-jeff-and-mychael-danna/