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With the child's eyes

The Breadwinner / Tehran Taboo
Regissør: Nora Twomey/Ali Soozandeh
(Canada, Irland og Luxembourg/Tyskland og Østerrike)

Girls dressed as boys in Kabul and Tehran's underworld with sex, intoxication and rave music are portrayed through the child's gaze in the animated films The Breadwinner and Tehran Taboo.


In recent years, we have gained insight into everyday life in Muslim countries through cartoons and animated films, as in the autobiographical Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, a comic book and later movie (2007) about a youngster growing up in Iran, and the cartoon success Arabs of the future (2015) by Riad Sattouf. Again an autobiographical account of his upbringing, this time in the dictatorships of Gaddafi and Assad.

The International Animation Festival Anifilm in Trebon, Czech Republic, recently featured two newcomers to this genre: last year's Oscars-nominated children's film The Breadwinner by Nora Twomey and Tehran Taboo, an adult animation film, by Ali Soozandeh. Both
the films have already garnered much attention and have received glorious criticism in Variety.

These are high quality animation films, both technical and content. A common denominator for both films is that the directors have chosen to tell bleak stories of oppression through a child's perspective. This gives us a unique approach and empathy with the main roles. Dreams and longings are like our own, but the circumstances the characters are in are incomprehensible to us.

The Breadwinner is a great introduction to understanding the situation in Afghanistan.

The peculiarity of childhood stories told from a children's perspective is that the narrator voice seems both more honest and humorous. We consider the actions of the adults and understand the consequences, but are infected by a childlike belief that everything will end well.

Boys Girls

The Breadwinner is based on a children's book of the same title, written by Canadian Deborah Ellis. The author spent several months in a refugee camp where she interviewed Afghan girls and women. This became the basis of the book. The story takes place in present-day Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. An 11-year-old girl, Parvana, takes the role of boy to become a family caregiver after her father was abducted by the Taliban. Dressing girls like boys, also called bacha posh – Persian for "dressed like a boy" – is not an unknown phenomenon in strict and segregated societies like Afghanistan. This has become a forced solution for several mothers who are left without male relatives, because no woman is allowed to move outside the home alone. In such decisions, the child does not have anything to say, but is forced to switch gender roles to help the family. Daughters who are made to be the "boy in the family" are sent to the market to buy food, run errands and take jumper jobs, but also get the freedom to go to school, play outside, ride a bike, play soccer and do activities that are Excluded for girls. The child must in no way be reminded of his female identity, not until they reach puberty – then they must again become women. Which proves to be very difficult for most guys to accept.

Visual fables

Unlike in the book, where Parvana is assigned the role of bacha posh, Parvana in the movie is a much more confident and stubborn girl. She makes the decision herself, to protests from her mother, cuts her hair and goes out into the world to explore. This makes her a stronger character: She does not become a victim, on the contrary – she becomes the hero who endures against all odds. As bacha posh for the first time, she is given the opportunity to move freely, and provides for the family by taking small jobs. At the same time, she must be on guard; If she is revealed by the Taliban, she will most likely be killed.

The children's perspective gives a poetic undertone to a story that otherwise could easily have become too dark.

The film also introduces us to Afghanistan's past through fables that his father, a former teacher, tells his daughter. We are reminded of a society before the Taliban took over: "We were scientists, philosophers and storytellers," he says, "and we studied the stars to find an order for this chaos." In these scenes, animator Nora Twomey really shows how capable she is at conveying the spiritual visually. We also gain new respect for a culture that is not only characterized by war and ravages, but which is full of rich traditions and values. After the father is arrested, Parvana continues to tell the fables of his younger brother, and the myth of a boy who dares to fight the devilish elephant becomes a metaphor for her own fight against fear.

Despite all the evil and oppression, there are also people in this movie who show their good heart. They dare to act based on their sense of justice and provide a helping hand with the risk of their own lives. This gives us a burgeoning hope that all evil can be fought if we show more compassion and concern for others.

The Breadwinner is a very engaging family film and a great introduction to understanding the situation in Afghanistan. Besides being beautifully animated (the movie comes from the same studio, Cartoon Saloon, which made The song from the sea), it will surely arouse empathy, respect and understanding for Afghan asylum seekers.

Crude and poetic

Tehran Taboo by Ali Soozandeh falls into another category: This is a raw, sexy, adult-only animated film depicting corruption, oppression and sexual harassment through a strong and visual language. Tehran Taboo is Soozandeh's debut film, and recounts his own experiences from the homeland he escaped from as a 24-year-old. The director was inspired by a conversation he overheard between two young Iranian men on a train: The men told each other about their experiences with women in Iran, especially a story about a prostitute taking her six-year-old to work. "I chose to tell the story from a young boy's perspective so that I could adopt an optimistic, hopeful and colorful approach to situations, as children usually look at life." The children's perspective gives a poetic undertone to a story that otherwise could easily have become too dark.

Tehran Taboo is a raw, sexy animated film with a strong and visual language.

The structure of Tehran Taboo reminiscent of Robert Altman's film Short Cuts (1993). The film is composed of several short episodes from everyday life to three women and a young musician. A young boy of six years ties all the stories together, as a silent witness to what is happening.

The underworld of Tehran

The story is added to a middle-class neighborhood in Tehran, where an atmosphere of paranoia lies like a heavy blanket over people. We are presented to a world of rave music, intoxication and sex – and everything is illegal, secret and hidden. The way people treat each other is perhaps more oppressive than the actual regulations. A judge runs a poor woman with a small son into prostitution, with a promise that he will sign the divorce papers on behalf of her addicted husband – a promise he never fulfills when he wants to keep her as a sex slave. A young musician composes innovative music, but can only play at secret rave parties as the state does not allow him to publish the music.

Under the influence of drugs, which Tehran is flooded with, he has fantastic sex with a random young woman in a toilet. This could be the start of a promising relationship, but she is pledged to a brutal fighter and must get the vagina sewn back together – a fairly common operation in Iran. The problem is that women have to get signed papers by their father or husband, whether it be access to an operation, school, job or whatever. Without the husband's consent, she will come no way.

This will be the beginning of a journey in Tehran's underworld. We are instantly struck by the amazing animation technique. The scenes were originally filmed in a studio with real actors, and then animated picture by picture. The effect is an extremely realistic representation of the most detailed facial expressions and natural movements.

This is the first movie I've seen about Iran that really speaks to the women's case – despite the story being told by a man. Tehran Taboo is a bleak but fascinating movie that is definitely worth watching.

Margareta Hruza
Margareta Hruza
Hruza is a Czech / Norwegian filmmaker and regular critic of Ny Tid.

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