Ottawa Animation Festival puts The Breadwinner on the red carpet

A scene from The Breadwinner.

The story of The Breadwinner by Canadian author Deborah Ellis has captured imaginations and hearts around the world. Now the tale of a young Afghan girl, who assumes a boy’s identity to help her family survive during the Taliban regime, has become an animated feature film with the imprimatur of executive producer Angelina Jolie and her global star power. After a much discussed screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Breadwinner has come to Ottawa in the form of two screenings during the Ottawa International Animation Festival. To find out more about the film, ARTSFILE interviewed Anthony Leo, one of the principal partners along with Andrew Rosen, in Toronto- and Los Angeles-based Aircraft Pictures. Leo’s company is one of the co-producers of a film that seems destined to be a worldwide hit.

Anthony Leo

Q. What is the genesis of The Breadwinner as a book and as a film?

A. The book was written by Canadian Deborah Ellis (recently appointed to the Order of Canada). Deborah had travelled to volunteer at Afghan refugee camps on the Pakistan border when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan. While there, she learned about the phenomenon known as ‘bacha posh’ whereby girls would dress as boys so that they could go out in public and work to support their families (since girls and women were not permitted outside of the home without a male escort in Afghanistan at that time).  Deborah decided to write The Breadwinner to give a voice to those girls.

I first learned about The Breadwinner on a family vacation. There was a nine year old girl in our group who would ask her mother to read aloud to her from the book each night after dinner.  The story and Deborah’s writing were so captivating that our entire group of 15 inevitably ended up dropping their conversations and listening to another chapter each evening. Over the course of the trip we read the whole book — it was the only traditional storytelling experience that I’ve had as an adult where we all gathered intently as a group like that.

Q. Can you tell a bit about when and how Aircraft Pictures got involved in the project?

A. Several years later, my business partner Andrew Rosen and I met with book publisher Groundwood Books at Page to Screen, a film producer/book publisher matchmaking event put on by the Ontario Media Development Corporation.  When Groundwood pulled out The Breadwinner I was reminded of that storytelling experience and we optioned the novel and developed the screenplay before reaching out to the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon to see if they were interested in co-producing the film with us. Aircraft Pictures does not have an animation studio and we were a fan of the animation style that Cartoon Saloon used in their films The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea (both were nominated for Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature Film). So the screenplay, voice recordings, music composition, post production and animation compositing were all done in Canada with animation taking place in Ireland and Luxembourg (with our other co-producing partner Melusine Productions).

Q. The story of Afghan girls and women is a difficult one. Does the film aim to explain that or redress that?

A. The film is set in 2001 just before the Taliban lost control of Afghanistan. The story is told from the point of view of Parvana — a young girl who must cut off her hair and dress as a boy to become the breadwinner of her family when the sole male adult in the house, her father, is arrested unfairly by the Taliban. From Parvana’s point of view, it’s all about her family’s survival and getting her father back.  Our team endeavoured to portray the reality of a girl living in Kabul at that time as accurately and authentically as possible so that the audience could draw their own conclusions without us overtly commenting on the situation.

In Parvana’s society, the only way she is permitted independence (and therefore, the chance to grow in confidence and develop a sense of self worth) is by dressing as a boy. While it’s a classic storytelling plot point on one hand, in The Breadwinner it’s less of a device and more so a harsh reality that we needed to honour in order to trace Parvana’s character arc over the course of the film in a meaningful way.

Q. The film is an animation. Could it have worked as well as a feature film?

We originally entertained the idea of producing the film as a live action piece but the theatrical film marketplace for a drama like this meant that we would have had to make it more of an adult, art-house film like The Kite Runner. In our opinion, this would have made the film less accessible to the book’s core audience which is 10 to 13 year olds. 

Q. Do you think an animated film can ‘sell’ a story in a different, more accessible way?

A. Our director Nora Twomey talks about using animation to ‘sugar the pill’ when it comes to some of the heavier moments in the story. Animation allows us to portray moments of violence in a way that allows the audience to get closer to what is happening without ‘switching off’ or getting taken out of the story by the more realistic portrayal that they would have experienced with live action.  It also allows for storytelling in such a way as to insinuate events that younger audiences may not yet be capable of coping with. 

Q. Where was the animation done. Who did it. How was it done?

A. The film took advantage of two different styles of animation – traditional 2D animation and a computer generated paper cut animation style. Parvana uses storytelling to give her family and herself hope — weaving a parallel fable throughout the film about a young boy who must go on a quest to defeat an evil Elephant King who has stolen precious seeds from his village. Parvana’s real world was done in traditional 2D animation in subdued earth tones to emphasize the harsher reality of her situation. The story world was made to look as though it was paper cut animation and made use of brighter colours and designs — drawing inspiration from Afghanistan’s rarely featured, rich history of art and culture.  The story world also creates balance by adding some comedic relief and more magical moments to the film.  The animation was done at Cartoon Saloon in Ireland and Melusine Productions in Luxembourg with animation compositing completed at Toronto’s Guru Studio

Q. The author of the original stories is giving proceeds from sales to help Afghan women and girls. Where are proceeds from the film going?

A. It took a record number of investors (as far as Aircraft’s production experience goes) to finance this film and there has been an effort on the part of the producers to demonstrate to film investors that films that deal with subject matter such as and commercial success need not be mutually exclusive. In doing so, we hope to seed a real interest in more intelligent, thoughtful, feature film fare for families moving forward.  The direction of proceeds will be up to those investors but I know that our Executive Producer Angelina Jolie has already committed to donate any profit she receives from the film to assist girls and women in Afghanistan.

I believe that Deborah Ellis distributes her royalties through Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. I don’t believe Angelina has decided which NGO she will use just yet but I know that she has already funded the development of several schools for girls in rural Afghanistan with UNHCR.

Q. It’s great that Angelina Jolie is involved. When did that happen and has she been very hands on in the project? 

A. Two of our other executive producers on the film — Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer — introduced us and the script to Angelina as we were just about to start the production process. She really responded to the material and agreed to come on board as an executive producer. Her own experiences in Afghanistan have lead to a deep understanding of the problems faced by girls like Parvana and the complex nature of conflict and its effects on children. Through out the production she was a valuable resource for Nora, acting as a sounding board as Nora worked to craft an authentic story.

Q. What kind of film has Nora Twomey created?

A. While this film is Nora’s first feature film as a solo director, she brought a wealth of experience to the project that she gained as the co-director on The Secret of Kells and head of story on Song of the Sea. She is a tour-de-force whose artistic instincts coupled with a fierce desire to make a film that was altogether authentic to the Afghan experience and relatable to parents and children everywhere made her the perfect choice to direct the film.

Q. Are there pitfalls is making such a film?

A. I wouldn’t say there are any pitfalls to making such a film. Every film has its challenges and one significant challenge for our character and background designers was how to accurately reflect what it was like to live in Kabul at that time. Under the Taliban, photographs and film were forbidden so there are next to no visual records of what the city looked like under their control.  Our designers had to use photos that were taken pre and post Taliban rule and fill in the gaps with the help of several Afghan-Canadian cultural consultants who had lived in Kabul at that time.

Q. Was it difficult to get backing for the project?

A. This project stands out for us as having an unusually high number of financing sources (19 in total).  But despite having to piece it together from so many different sources, most investors got the timeliness of the story and its relevance right off the bat. So it wasn’t as difficult to get all the financiers to commit as it was juggling all of that paperwork and everyone’s respective needs so that they were all able to finally sign on the dotted line — that process took about a year in itself.

Q. The film has had a big splash at TIFF so there has been media attention. How have audiences responded?

A. We’ve been truly humbled and overwhelmed by the audience response so far. There were a lot of families at the TIFF premiere and it was heartwarming to hear the reactions from several young girls in the audience afterwards. During the Q&A after the screening one young girl stood up and immediately wanted to know what she could do to help girls like Parvana and without missing a beat Angelina Jolie responded by encouraging her to do more of what she just did — be brave, stand up and ask.  We’ve also had unanimous support from the Afghans who have seen the film with many praising it for its authenticity, its balanced portrayal of the Afghan people and its depiction of how war harms our society without discrimination.

The Breadwinner
Ottawa International Animation Festival
When: Friday, Sept. 22 at 7 p.m.
Where: Bytowne Cinema
When: Saturday Sept. 23 at 3 p.m. This is a free event but requires a ticket.
Where: National Gallery of Canada Auditorium
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.