Nora Twomey/ Ali Soozandeh
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.
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.
«The Breadwinner is an excellent introduction to understanding the situation in Afghanistan.»
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.
Unlike in the book, where the role as bacha posh is imposed on Parvana, the Parvana we encounter in the film is a much more confident and stubborn girl. She makes the decision herself (disregarding her mother’s protests), cuts her hair short and ventures into the outside world to explore. This makes her a stronger character – she’s not a victim, on the contrary she becomes the heroine who prevails against all odds. As a bacha posh she is allowed freedom of movement for the first time, and she provides for her family by doing odd jobs. At the same time, she has to be on her guard. If the Taliban were to unmask her identity, she would most likely face death.
The film also introduces us to Afghanistan’s past through the fables that Parvana’s father, a former schoolteacher, recounts to his daughter. We are reminded of the existence of a very different society before the Taliban’s takeover: «We were scientists, philosophers and storytellers,» he says, «and we studied the stars to find an order in this chaos.» In these scenes we gain a new respect for a culture that isn’t only characterised by war and depredations but is also full of rich traditions and values. After her father’s arrest, Parvana passes the fables on to her younger brother, and the myth about a boy who dares to fight a diabolical elephant becomes a metaphor for her own struggle against fear.
Despite all the evil and oppression in this film we also come across kind-hearted people who dare to act out of a sense of justice, and who offer a helping hand at the risk of their own lives. This provides us with a budding hope that evil can be combated if only we could show more concern and empathy for others.
The Breadwinner is a highly compelling family film and an excellent introduction for those wishing to understand the situation in Afghanistan. Besides being beautifully animated (courtesy of Cartoon Saloon, the same studio that made The Song of the Sea), it is guaranteed to arouse empathy, respect and understanding for Afghan asylum-seekers.
Raw and poetic
Tehran Taboo by Ali Soozandeh belongs in a different category. This is a raw, sexy, animated film for an adult audience detailing corruption, repression and sexual harassment told in a strong, visual language. Tehran Taboo is Soozandeh’s debut feature and deals with his experiences in his home country before he fled at the age of 24.
The director was inspired by a conversation he overheard between two young men on a train: The men told each other stories about their experiences with women in Iran and one of the stories, about a prostitute who brought her six-year-old with her on the job, made a particular impression. «I chose to tell the story from a young boy’s perspective so that I could adopt an optimistic, hopeful and colourful outlook on the situations, the way children normally look at life.» The child’s perspective provides a poetic undertone to a story that could otherwise have become too dark. The structure of Tehran Taboo reminded me of Robert Altman’s film Short Cuts from 1993. The film is composed of several short episodes from the daily lives of three women and a young musician. A six-year-old boy ties all the stories together as a silent witness to the goings-on.
The story plays out in a middle-class neighbourhood in Tehran where an atmosphere of paranoia lies like a heavy blanket over its people. We are introduced to a world of rave music, drugs and sex; only everything is illegal, hidden and covert.
«Tehran Taboo is a raw, sexy, animated film told in a strong visual language.»
The way people treat each other is perhaps more repressive than the actual laws themselves. A judge drives a poor woman with a small son into prostitution with a promise that he will sign the divorce papers on behalf of her husband, a drug addict – a promise he never honours as he prefers to keep her as his sex slave. A young musician composes innovative music but has to perform at secret rave parties, as the state doesn’t allow him to publish the music. Under the influence of drugs, which Tehran is awash with, he has amazing sex with a random young woman in a toilet.
This could be the start of a promising relationship, but she’s been promised to a brutal giant and has to have her hymen repaired – a fairly normal procedure in Iran. The problem is that women must have all important papers signed by their father or husband, whether it is to get access to surgery, a school, a job or anything else. Without her husband’s consent she can do nothing.
This is the beginning of a journey through Tehran’s underworld. I was immediately impressed by the fantastic animation techniques. The scenes were originally shot in a studio with real actors, and subsequently animated image by image. The effect is an extremely realistic portrayal showing the characters’ highly detailed facial expressions and natural movements.
This is the first film I have seen about Iran that genuinely addresses women’s rights cases (although the story is told by a man). Tehran Taboo is a dark but fascinating film that is absolutely worth watching.