ANIMATED MOVIES: Girls dressed as boys in Kabul and Tehran’s underworld of sex, drugs and rave music are portrayed through the eyes of children in the animated movies The Breadwinner and Tehran Taboo.
The Breadwinner/Tehran Taboo
During the last decade we have gained an insight into daily life in Muslim countries through cartoons and animated movies like Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical Persepolis, a graphic novel that was subsequently adapted for the screen in 2007 depicting a young girl’s adolescence in Iran, and the successful graphic novel The Arab of the Future, again an autobiographical coming-of-age story set in Gaddafi and Assad’s dictatorships.
The International Festival of Animated Films or Anifilm, held every year in the Czech town of Trebon, recently screened two newcomers in the genre: last year’s Oscar-nominated children’s movie The Breadwinner by Nora Twomey and Tehran Taboo, an animated movie for adults by Ali Soozandeh. Both films received much attention during last year’s Cannes film festival and were lavishly praised in Variety.
«The Breadwinner is an excellent introduction to understanding the situation in Afghanistan.»
These are animated movies of high quality both in terms of technical skill and content. Both films share a common trait in that the directors have chosen to tell dark stories about repression from the perspective of children. This provides us with a unique approach to – and empathy with – the main characters. Their dreams and yearnings resemble our own, though the circumstances the characters find themselves in are incomprehensible.
A unique aspect about coming-of-age stories told from the perspective of children is that the narrative voice seems both more honest and humorous. We regard the actions of the adults and can perceive their consequences but are still infected by a childlike belief that everything will turn out all right in the end.
The Breadwinner is based on a children’s book with the same name by the Canadian author Deborah Ellis, who spent several months in a refugee camp interviewing Afghan girls and women as part of her research. This formed the basis for the book. The story plays out in present-day Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital.
An 11-year-old girl, Parvana, assumes the identity of a boy to become her family’s breadwinner after her father’s abduction by the Taliban. The practice of dressing up girls as boys, also called bacha posh (Persian for «dressed like boy») is a familiar phenomenon in strict and segregated societies like Afghanistan. It has become the last resort to many mothers who have been left without male relatives, as no woman is allowed to venture beyond her home unaccompanied. The child has no say in the matter and is forced to switch gender roles to help out the family. Daughters who thus find themselves converted to «the boy in the family» are sent to the market to buy groceries, run errands and carry out odd jobs, but are also granted the freedom to attend school, play outdoors, ride a bike, play football and engage in other activities that girls are normally excluded from. The girls must in no way be reminded of their female identity, not until they reach puberty when they have to become women again – something that proves very difficult for most tomboys to accept.
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