Homegrown Hero

“Everything changes, Parvana. Stories remind us of that.”

So says Parvana’s father at the start of the new animated film The Breadwinner, directed by Nora Twomey with Angelina Jolie as executive producer.

Parvana’s story is indeed one of sweeping change, precipitated by her father’s arrest by the Taliban for the “crime” of reading books and standing up for his daughter in the market when Taliban officers screamed at her. The 11-year-old decides that the only way to provide for her family—to become the breadwinner now that her father is jailed—is to transform herself into a boy and take advantage of the mobility and the opportunities available only to boys in Kabul under the Taliban. Women, according to the regime’s rules, must remain indoors, unseen and with no access to their own streets if—as was the case for Parvana’s mother and sister—they have no male chaperone to accompany them.

On the streets of Kabul, Parvana meets Shauzia, a former classmate also masquerading as a boy, working odd jobs and dodging the Taliban. In the film, adapted from the book by Canadian author Deborah Ellis, we see these girls-dressed-as-boys take on the added disguise of adulthood as they risk their safety to care for their families each day.

Yet girls can’t be breadwinners. Or at least that’s what many outside Afghanistan expect and believe, people who haven’t yet met girls like Parvana. They hear the word Taliban and conjure up images of women shrouded in blue and huddled indoors, awaiting rescue. Yet, in reality, girls did prove to be their family’s rescuers, homegrown heroes who risked their own safety to support their parents and siblings.

Girls—like the real-life Kamila in my book The Dressmaker of Khair Khana and so many others I met in the process of telling that story—carried many families through the Taliban years. They taught school. Sold dresses. Grew vegetables. Sewed burqas. Schooled women on Microsoft Office. Anything to take care of their families.

This film is a luminous tribute to the love, grit and grace on display in abundance in Afghanistan, a country known more for its bombs than its breadwinners. Parvana looks in the mirror and sees her own possibility—that she can transform herself to carry her family through the darkness. She can get help from her sister to cut her hair. And after donning clothes that belonged to an older brother killed by a landmine, she can go out into the world to buy food, fetch water and earn money for her mother, older sister and baby brother.

The Breadwinner tells the story of an impetuous girl who fights with her big sister and doesn’t always listen to her mother. She is not the perfect child—instead, she is the perfect child to get her family through an impossible time, fueled by stories she tells her younger brother and bravery she unearths from inside.

“It was all about finding the universal themes,” says Twomey, who spent four years making the film and toiling to strike that precise balance between the personal and the universal. “A young girl’s love for her dad is at the center of it.”

So many men I have met in Afghanistan have the generosity and the quiet courage of Parvana’s father. And so many women possess the strength of Parvana’s mother, who stands up in the end to a violent cousin trying to marry her oldest daughter. The Breadwinner is a tribute to their courage. And to the determination of the mothers and fathers, the sons and daughters who push forward each day against daunting odds to do what is right for the next generation.

“At the end of the day, you just have people trying to get through,” Twomey says, adding that the film does not seek to offer easy answers, but instead to pose questions. “The hope we see in the film is Parvana.”

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of New York Times bestsellers Ashley’s War and The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

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