When Nora Twomey set out to make her latest film, The Breadwinner, she was given a sage piece of advice: never talk down to children and never over-explain.
"If children don't understand something, they just move on to the next thing, it's no big deal and it will come back into their consciousness later on," she the Irish animation director when we meet at London's Mayfair Hotel. "Whereas adults don't forgive you if you over simplify things."
It's a delicate balancing act, bringing something like Canadian author Deborah Ellis's novel – published in 2000 – to the big screen.
While aimed at children, the story directly confronts the misogyny and chauvinism of contemporary Afghanistan. It centres on Parvana, an 11-year-old girl living in Kabul under the oppressive Taliban regime. When her father is arrested, she must disguise herself as a boy to work and support her family.
This is hardly the stuff of fantasy but a well-known phenomenon in Afghanistan called "Bacha posh".
"If you didn't have a boy in your family, then you were to be pitied in a way," says Twomey. She says that families disguising their daughters as boys is something people frequently turn a blind eye to. "Certainly around the time of the Taliban – and before that – if you had no male members of your family, you couldn't go outside, literally, because you had to have a male relative with you [to escort you]."
It may sound a little much for a children's story but then perhaps that's underestimating the book's youthful audience. Saara Chaudry, the 13 year-old Canadian actress who voices Parvana, says it was "shocking" when she first read Ellis's book and its two follow-ups. "I was ignorant," she says. "Living in a First World country, I didn't know. Having read the books and seen these different stories, it opened my eyes to a whole new world that I never really knew."
Chaudry, who grew up in Toronto but has Afghan heritage, was impressed by her character’s resolute determination. “The fact that she is in the conditions that she’s in, being able to have such a positive outlook on life, to be so determined to fight for her father or help her family – just those little things that she can do, that she always will go out of her way to do – is incredible. Even though this character is just on the screen, people really feel it.”
Twomey and Chaudry have many stories from screenings where young girls have come up to them, praising the film and relating their own experiences. "If I am being able to voice a character that is inspiring other young girls, then that's incredible," says Chaudry. "I hope that all young girls who watch this movie are inspired. If they have a goal in life, they will set their mind to it and they will do it; they won't let anyone tell them different."
Impressively, the team behind the film produced an online study guide, at www.thebreadwinner.com to complement the film. "If young people watch a film like The Breadwinner, they can start to explore answers," says Twomey. "For me, the whole thing is about education. It's not about easy answers … anything we can do to have young adults ask questions and understand the complexity of places like Afghanistan [is a good thing]."
Certainly, the 46-year-old Twomey – who grew up in Ireland at the time the Troubles dominated the news headlines – is all too aware of the complex nature of conflicts that stretch back decades. "Peace is a very vulnerable thing and the more educated we are as society, as a global society, the more we take things seriously and the more we have the hope of coming up with solutions that are long term as opposed to the length of somebody's [time in] office."
Intriguingly, The Breadwinner was made far from Hollywood. It's a co-production between Cartoon Saloon, the Irish animation outfit behind Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells (which Twomey co-directed) and Song of the Sea and companies in Canada and Luxembourg. And yet proudly on the poster is the name Angelina Jolie, who came on board after producers Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim – who made 2013 documentary The Square, about the uprising in Egypt – got her the script.
Billed as an executive producer, Jolie was more than just a glamour name to attract distributors. “She very much encouraged us to get as many Afghan voices as we could into the filmmaking process,” says Twomey. “We had lots of people from different ethnicities, from inside and outside Afghanistan – people who had also been refugees.” It was only right, given that Ellis had spent months interviewing women and girls in refugee camps about their experiences in Pakistan.
More than that, Jolie was a cheerleader for the film.
"She recorded messages for the cast and crew," says Twomey. Something the actress did whenever the film hit a milestone in its production, "It was a great form of encouragement," says Chaudry. "I watched one the day before I went into the studio and started recording. It was quite surreal but she was very natural and down-to-earth. Her aura just came through the screen."
Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film last night – The Breadwinner is notable for its distinct graphic style, created by a 2D paint and digital animation software package called TVPaint. "The character designs are simplified, in order to have our audience identify a little bit more," says Twomey. "There's a funny thing with animation – the simpler you make the character, the more people identify with them."
According to the director, when they tested the film in schools, it wasn’t just the children who were affected by it.
"It was interesting seeing teachers come out with red eyes and saying how traumatic it must be for the children to see a film like this. But the children were in the lobby chatting and talking because they take their cue from Parvana."
It sure makes a change from Disney princesses and Pixar talking toys.
The Breadwinner opens in UAE cinemas on January 25