Nominated at the 90th Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature, this film focuses on a young girl in Afghanistan who has to pretend to be a boy in order to earn money to feed her starving family. The reason is because the Taliban controls a large part of Afghanistan, and the Taliban are Islamic fundamentalists who don’t allow women to have an education, be employed or even go outside with being completely covered by a burqa and accompanied by a man. If a woman disobeyed the rules, she could be brutally beaten. Adapted by Anita Doron, this movie is based on the novel by Deborah Ellis, a Canadian activist on behalf of oppressed Afghan women. It was directed by Nora Twomey, an Irish animator with Cartoon Saloon, the company that has been nominated twice before with The Secret of the Kells (2009) at the 82nd Academy Awards and Song of the Sea (2014) at the 87th Academy Awards. What’s different is that Angelina Jolie is one of the executive producers on this film.
Jolie directed a film the same year that’s also about a young girl of color who has to deal with not religious extremism but warring factions. Yet, Jolie’s film called First They Killed My Father is a perfect companion piece to this, as both are told from a little girl’s point-of-view, a point-of-view that is in many ways held hostage and has to survive with not much more than her own wits and sheer force of will. Both brilliantly show the strength of young girls. I hoped Jolie’s film would have gotten the nomination, as it made my list of best films of 2017 and was submitted for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, but even though I overlooked it, I’m glad this film, very much related, got this nomination.
As it was noted on this movie’s Wikipedia page, the plot is very much similar to Osama (2003), the first film shot in Afghanistan since 1995 after the Taliban outlawed filmmaking. I did not see Osama, but I respect what must have been immense bravery on the part of the filmmakers there. Obviously, this film was made from a safe distance from the actual Afghanistan. It also has the benefit of boasting a vivid and diverse, color palette, but, make no mistake, Twomey’s film is not just a children’s tale or a tale for children. It’s hard-hitting, dealing with adult themes and gut-wrenching emotions.
However, it is beautiful. The traditional, 2D animation is sumptuous as it is with all of Cartoon Saloon’s projects. One other aspect that makes this film additionally gorgeous is the use of what looks like paper cut-out animation. That cut-out animation forms the basis of an imagined adventure that runs parallel to the main story. That main story involves what could be called cross-dressing or a drag king. It shows the overwhelming sexism and misogyny that a little girl named Parvana has to face. She has to pretend to be a boy just to go outside, or else she’ll be physically attacked. No, this movie isn’t graphic, but it makes clear that women are being physically attacked simply for being women. The beauty here overlays a horror of female abuse and Twomey makes sure the audience feels it.
Yet, the way Parvana copes is by imagining a boy named Sulayman in an adventure to fight the Elephant King. At first, Sulayman is supposedly an avatar for Parvana and he is, but Sulayman is also representative of something else just as profound. Sulayman mirrors Parvana’s “adventure” for lack of a better word to save her father.
At the beginning of the film, we see that Parvana’s father named Nurullah who lost his leg during the Afghan Civil War has liberal beliefs and feels that women should be educated, so he teaches young girls like his daughter how to read and write, as well as the history of their country. Eventually, one of the Taliban, a guy named Idrees, learns this and has Nurullah arrested. Nurullah’s eldest son died some time ago and his other son, Zaki, is just a toddler, so he leaves behind his wife named Fattema and two daughters, Parvana, his youngest, and Saraya, his eldest. Neither of whom are allowed outside to shop or work, and if they try, they get brutally beaten, so the women are essentially trapped. Parvana gets the idea to cut her hair and dress in her brother’s clothes and pretend to be a boy to help her family, but she also wants to find her father and free him. This becomes her adventure.
Along the way, Parvana meets a couple of people who help her, including another young girl named Shauzia, and another father figure named Razaq. As much as this film is about family as First They Killed My Father, the friendships that Parvana has with Shauzia and Razaq prove to be as heartwarming as anything with Parvana’s next of kin. Yes, the society and culture in Afghanistan are very toxic from a western perspective, but, by the end, the movie still is able to have a sense of pride and love for the country and the people. It shows Afghan people can still be nationalistic. Even there, love and beauty can shine through. It all climaxed in an ending similar to the one in The NeverEnding Story (1984) that had me more in tears than that 80’s fantasy.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 33 mins.
Available on Netflix.
Available on DVD / VOD on March 6.