“The Breadwinner” — a Moving Message in Search of an Audience Willing to be Moved

As Malala Yousafazai returns to Pakistan, it’s worth watching a film that explains what, and why she left.

Malala Yousafazai, the world’s youngest Nobel Prize winner and most famous teenager has returned to Pakistan, to the Swat Valley, her former home, where six years ago a Taliban assassin shot her in the head and left her for dead.

Her crime? Going to school and publicizing it…

Though her recovery took time, she beat the odds, and beat the odds again by attending another school, Oxford, impressive for anyone. But, as much as Oxford welcomed her, most Pakistanis have not. She returned under heavy guard, guards that will likely stay with her as long as she’s there, or in any of the world’s other predominantly Muslim countries— for the rest of her life.

By surviving and recovering, and continuing to advocate for reform, Malala has become more than an educated Muslim woman, she has become an agent for change, something the Islamic world has repressed for fourteen centuries, and her story has made of her a lens, focusing the attention of the non-Islamic world on one narrow slice of Islam itself —its institutional misogyny.

We like Malala’s story because (so far) it has a happy ending. But what happens when we widen our gaze and look at the world’s hundreds of millions of other Malalas? Do we still like the story?

The answer, of course, is no, we don’t.

Which explains why “The Breadwinner”, taken from the novel (sometimes known as “Parvana” instead of “The Breadwinner”), though produced by Angelina Jolie and nominated for the Best Animated Picture Oscar, earned a total of just $312,000 at the worldwide box office. That’s right, one of film critics’ and the Academy’s favorite films last year grossed less in its entire worldwide run than “Coco” did on opening night in one city, Los Angeles.

What did Jolie and the director, Nora Twomey do wrong?

Nothing. The film is wonderful.

By choosing animation they made the story accessible to both children and adults, and the two-dimensional artwork is both simple and beautiful. The characters speak in English, the default language for box office success, and weave a young girl’s fascinating imaginary tale in with her family’s story, her father, mother, sister and two brothers, one of whom we don’t know or begin to understand until near the film’s end.

And by choosing that same intelligent, industrious and brave, (more-so than most of us) eleven year old girl as the hero, they force us to understand the tragedy, not as spectators, but as participants, from the inside.

Then why is no one watching?

Because, in this film Jolie and Twomey tell a story most of the world wants not to hear, a story so affecting it causes deep consternation in the Islamic world and deeper guilt in the non-Islamic world; because the film’s tragedies know no bounds; they are as broad as they are deep, personal, and familial horrors, national collapses, and globe-spanning religio-cultural catastrophes that not only leave no-one unmoved, they leave no-one unscathed, not those of us who have nothing to do with them, and particularly not those of us who insist on having nothing to do with them.

For Muslims it’s impossible to watch this film without being embarrassed; for infidels it’s impossible to watch it without feeling guilty — so we don’t watch.

But we should, and accept our embarrassment or guilt, whichever we deserve, because ignoring problems never solves them.

Our hero, Parvana, lives in Kabul, Afghanistan. Her father, Nurullah was a teacher, before he lost a leg in the war. Nurullah has been reduced to selling the family’s treasures on the street, not because he’s lost a leg, but because the Taliban interpret the Koran literally, so reading, even possessing a book not the Koran is a sin.

With ideas and the teaching of them outlawed, who needs teachers?

Parvana’s mother, Fattema was a writer, who not only is no longer allowed to write, she’s no longer allowed to do much of anything, since she’s a woman. In fact, she’s not even allowed on the street unless accompanied by her husband.

Parvana’s older sister, Soraya is no longer a child, but not yet married, prey for the hunters, she dare not venture outside. Her world consists of the space within the walls of her family’s small home, taking care of her toddler brother.

Their lives are tenuous until the day Parvana’s beautiful green eyes attract the attention of a Taliban fighter. At eleven, she’s already been marriageable for two years. Nurullah’s not willing to have marriage forced on his daughter, but when he tries to deflect the Taliban fighter’s attention, the man responds by inspecting the family’s home and finding what he knew Nurullah would have, a story book, all they need to imprison him for crimes against Islam.

With the family’s only adult male in prison, the women’s situation becomes critical. Their religious overlords forbid them to leave the home to buy food, or even draw water. They are trapped within their four walls by non-negotiable rules, written fourteen-hundred years before they were born.

There is only one solution, Parvana must cut off her hair and dress as a boy, or they will starve.

And so, she does, and supplies them with food and water until their funds run out, whereupon she labors at odd jobs, working as a boy alongside Shauzia, another young girl doing the same thing for a different reason. Parvana works to feed her family and free the father she loves; Shauzia works to save enough money to escape from a father who doesn’t love her.

But, how long can two eleven year old girls pass as boys? As it turns out, not long, and the girls and women are thrown from the precarious cultural frying pan into the heart of the religious fire.

There is no way out, for them — or anyone else. The men around them, good or bad, sympathetic or not, are all caught in the same trap, set by the same seventh century death cult, and though they may be spared the humiliating lives and deaths of the women, the men must die just the same, for that is what the Prophet commanded, obedience unto death.

Yes, this is a cartoon…but a cartoon for everyone, adults and children.

But more, it is the artfully told tale of a girl younger than Malala, facing trials greater than Malala’s, and doing so with no help from the outside world.

It shows us why, amid the ever-brighter glow of engineering achievements, medical marvels and world-altering scientific discoveries, twenty percent of the population lives in self-imposed darkness: Muhammad fixed their world immutably in place in 632, when he and his scribes sealed the Koran, allowing for no rewrites or reinterpretations and imposing a mandatory death sentence on anyone who tries.

Nurullah not just can, but must be jailed for reading something besides the Koran. Fattema not just can, but must be beaten for leaving her home without her husband. Parvana and Soraya must hide, as long as they can, to avoid being forced into marriages against their wills. And Parvana must forget her father’s photo, because the Koran forbids photos, and all other images.

And the men who persecute them must do so, or they will be persecuted themselves. There is no escape, for the jailed or their jailers, they all live within the prison of their religion —

— as did Malala, as, but for her guards, does she still.

While the Muslim world takes a graduated approach to enforcing its rules, the rules remain, in black and white for all to see, and for those who pledge allegiance to the Prophet, the ultimate authority is always there, laying perpetually in wait for its next literal enforcer to arise and do its holy bidding.

Ask Malala and Parvana; the rules never die, only those who break them.

“The Breadwinner”, PG-13. Winner of the 2017 Annie and Los Angeles Film Critic’s Awards for Best Animated Film. See it on YouTube and Google Play.