Political films have a defined aesthetic. It is not my intention to limit the power of expression, but the phrase political film does tend to be associated with a very particular type of cinema. Deceptive governments, treacherous murders, scandals – even war films sometimes. One could argue war movies aren’t inherently political, but I’d wholeheartedly disagree. You can’t really dissociate politics from a story that is about a massive massacre (no war is without tremendous loss of life) which began because of political rivalries. Dark comedies are also sometimes incredibly politically charged. However, there’s another kind which, though not rare, isn’t the one whose image is immediately invoked when thinking of political cinema. These films are narrative and often poetic but poignant pieces depicting the difficulties of life.
Nora Twomey’s The Breadwinner falls in the last category. It’s a meandering and haunting depiction of life in Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban. Designing it as a slice-of-life film is truly an incredible move, because that’s what leaves such an impression on the mind of the viewer. The film’s portrayal of the harsh reality through its events and its narrative bits, is simultaneously raw and cinematic. It seems to appreciate the poetry of life, but is also excruciatingly aware of the creative block introduced by the oppression. It’s this balance between the beautiful and the heartbreaking, which somehow tells you that life is able to survive despite the worst of circumstances, making the film unique.
The story of The Breadwinner is a tragic one, about loss of all kinds. Loss of freedom, of identity, of family, of life, and of faith. Structured traditionally, it’s broken into three acts: the introduction to the world, the development of the plot, and a hint at resolution. The resolution, however, is one so reflective of the reality, that it’s far from redeeming. And yet, it manages to introduce a sliver of hope, a shining thread of humanity, to which life is able to hold on, and egg the heart onwards. Calling tragedy a part and parcel of life is disturbingly cold-blooded, and yet, it’s true. The ability to reconcile loss, and allow the story to keep going after its end, makes the film’s ending stand out.
The picture of the society that has been drawn in the film is devastating. The atrocities that had become commonplace occurrences often got normalised. And they have been depicted nonchalantly, to reflect this trend of normalisation. It’s physically painful to realise the extent to which the lack of basic human rights had become ingrained into existence. The entanglement of the circumstances with the emotional hook of the film, is how it’s able to give commentary without becoming preachy. You’re so quickly invested in the lives of the characters, and so terribly horrified by the violation of human rights on display, that there’s no chance of maintaining an objective distance from the story.
The look and feel of the film is very culturally rich. The visuals are rather authentic recreations of the places and times it depicts. It’s, however, genuinely difficult to believe that such a vibrant and artistic land is also a haunted graveyard of humanity. The gritty colour palette of the present is powerfully contrasted with the bright and overwhelmingly shiny visual aesthetic of the fantasy land in which the folk tales are depicted. The fact that despite witnessing such terrible atrocities, their minds are still able to conjure lively and energetic lives in their fantasies is truly heartwarming. The power of the heart to believe and toil against all notions of impending doom, and to keep beating, is deservedly acknowledged through this.
The political aspect of the film is so essentially ingrained into its every fibre that you can’t pinpoint where political commentary starts or stops. It’s a slice of life film that tells the story of one particular family as its members do all they can, to cope with the tyrannical restrictions imposed on them. However, it’s much more than that. The distinction between this particular family and any other hasn’t been established. This generalisation has been clinically employed to educate the viewers about the situation. Plus, the regular reiteration of every ridiculous rule, and how it makes living literally impossible under some quite likely circumstances, makes the film almost completely political. It’s not designed so as to ease the viewer into its world. This makes its endeavours are even more effective. And that’s because often viewers become wary when a film establishes itself as political from the get-go.
The Breadwinner focuses on the power of stories, and the gratitude it holds for the fact that it’s able to exist because stories do, is very easily felt from a preliminary viewing only. There’s a beautiful balance between the narrative it follows and the stories that its characters narrate. The fact is, history, as a source of inspiration and learning, exists today because the culture of storytelling does. This seems trivial when stated, and yet it’s mostly unacknowledged. Stories define who we are by providing us with roots and adding consequence to individuality. Everyone has their own story to tell; and it’s only because they tell it, that the next generation of people are able to comprehend their role in the grand scheme of things.
Nothing comes from nothing, they say. This is more poetically expressed through the narrative pieces within the film. Every habit and every cultural aspect of their existence is comes from one ancestral story or the other. This expresses the evolution of lifestyles and ensures that the audience will never forget why stories matter. Be it autobiographical, or be it completely imaginative, a story is the ultimate expression of awareness and desire. Through her father’s stories about his colourful childhood, which got torn apart at the hands of the Taliban, the protagonist is able to realise her own story. Through her folktale-like narrative, she’s able to pass on a chunk of her knowledge to her brother, and the cycle remains unbroken.
There’s something inherently political about a film that is completely aware of its circumstances and of the backdrop that it employs to tell its story. Through the design of said backdrop, it’s able to actually speak on the politics and the social dynamics of the civilization it shows, whether real or fictional. The Breadwinner doesn’t shy away from talking about the darkest truths, and takes the viewers on a rather real journey. Although that makes it absolutely political, it is also as poetic as cinema gets, despite its content and premise. The impact is best felt through the way it doesn’t leave you for quite a few days after you’ve watched it. Its power as a narrative piece is derived from its incorporation of not just the reality it depicts, but the lore that comes from it, and the history that brought it to its current form. Despite everything, it’s still able to let softness thrive. It’s an ode to the power of a hopeful heart to allow you to fight and heal at the same time. ‘It is rain that makes the flowers grow, not thunder.’
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.