We are at the edges of empires at war with each other.
We are a fractured land in the claws of the Hindu Kush mountains,
scorched by the fiery eyes of the northern desert.
Black rubble earth against ice peaks
we are Ariana, the land of the noble.
Parvana, an 11-year-old girl, lives with her family under the iron grip of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Taliban). Decades of war and tyranny have plunged the land into abject poverty, and her amputee father, Nurullah, struggles to make a living as a scribe and street vendor. Though the regime cracks down severely on education and demands complete submission from all women, Parvana and her siblings are lucky to have a learned upbringing from their parents, who raised them to be literate and educated them on the nation's history through stories. Things, however, take a turn for the worse when the Taliban imprisons her father under false charges. Left with no other option, Parvana disguises herself as a boy in order to be the family's breadwinner and free her father before war engulfs the country once more.
The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on 8 September 2017.
Has nothing to do with the animated series Breadwinners.
The film contains examples of:
- Abusive Parents: Shauzia's father is apparently so, hence why she is working hard to earn money so she can run away from home and, if possible, the country.
- Adaptation Explanation Extrication: The updated setting of 2001 messes up the climax of the story, which sees Fattema attempting to arrange the wedding of Soraya with a cousin in Mazar-i-Sharif. Except that Mazar was also in the Taliban's hands in 2001, and had been since the 1998 battle; moving there isn't going to do them any good. In the book, which is set in the late 1990s, the city has yet to fall. Parvana is told by a refugee, days after her family had departed for Mazar, that the city has fallen to the Taliban. To be fair, the film also removes the plot point of Soraya wanting to go to college, which would be impossible even for adult men, let alone women, under the Taliban's rule.
- Adaptation Name Change: In the film, Parvana's older sister Nooria is renamed Soraya, her deceased brother Hossain is Sulayman, and her little brother Ali is Zaki.
- Adapted Out: Mrs. Weera, notably since she plays a pivotal role in the book as Parvana's second mother figure.
- Adult Fear: The entire movie is made of this. Living in a war zone under a tyrannical regime, having your disabled spouse unjustly arrested, being completely unable to work, having to send your preteen daughter to do dangerous work on the streets and risk discovery just so that you can put some food on the table, being violently abused by a family member who holds the key to your livelihood... the list goes on.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: Parvana and Idrees have green and blue eyes, respectively, which might look strange for a film populated entirely by non-European characters. The funny thing is, none of them is particularly unusual in Afghanistan, and then some (e.g. the famous Afghan Girl, one of Parvana's inspirations, also has green eyes).
- A Real Man Is a Killer: Naturally, the film skewers men with this mentality.
- Arc Symbol: The boy from the Story Within a Story shows up a few times curled in a Troubled Fetal Position. This seems to be a symbol for fear and grief.
- Arc Words: There are a lot of requests for and mentions of stories throught the movie. The stories themselves act as both encouragement to go on and some much-needed escapism.
- Arranged Marriage: Halfway through the film, Fattema arranges a marriage between her oldest daughter Soraya and her cousin's youngest son to make ends meet. They send a relative to collect her, Soraya, and Zaki while Parvana is out; so she calls it off.
- Artistic License Religion: A minor example. When the girls are finishing their prayer, they clearly do not recite the tashahud.
- Art Shift: The fairy tales are illustrated in cutout stop-motion-like sequences with an art style reminiscent of Persian miniatures.
- Bittersweet Ending: Parvana manages to get her weakened father out of prison thanks to the help of Razaq (who may die of the bullet wounds he received for it), and Fattema, Soraya, and Zaki manage to drive off the cruel relative come to collect them against their will. But each group is stranded in the middle of the road the same night that a war is starting and bombs are approaching, so it is uncertain if either group will survive the night, let alone find each other later. But for now, they are happy to be together and to have a chance of reuniting later.
- Book-Ends: The film opens with Parvana's father telling her the history of their people. The film ends with her repeating the same words back to him.
- Bystander Syndrome: A cruel necessity to survive in Taliban-controlled Afganistan. Most men are afraid to openly assist or do business with women lest they get punished by the Taliban. At one point, disguised-as-a-boy Parvana witnesses a woman getting beaten for leaving her house unescorted, and is ashamed of herself for not helping afterwards. Shauzia casually points out that if she had, all she would have helped was herself to a good beating.
- Character Development: Parvana learns to be more confident and optimistic during her time passing as a boy.
- Character Name Alias: Shauzia goes by the male pseudonym Deliwar, which means "brave" in Dari (Persian). Parvana later adopts the name Aatish, meaning "fire".
- Children Are Innocent: Averted with Parvana and Shauzia, who are forced to disguise themselves as boys, do hard work on the streets and expose themselves to the horrors of the Taliban regime to provide for their families. Played straight with the toddler Zaki.
- Comic-Book Adaptation: Groundwood Books released a graphic novel.
- Conditioned to Accept Horror: Shauzia, especially, who's been successfully passing as a boy for quite some time. She's gotten used to being wary of landmines and hearing about beatings.
- Crapsack World: Under the Taliban rule, Afghanistan is a land ground down by poverty and war, where the people are barely literate enough to keep their dying history and myths alive. Young boys are casually abused and forced to do back-breaking work or fight for the Taliban just to make ends meet, women are forbidden from going outside the house entirely, arrests and punishment are handed out by roving gunmen whenever they feel like it and all forms of technology and outside influence are banned.
- Darker and Edgier: The movie is markedly darker and more viscerally violent compared to both the original novel and Cartoon Saloon's previous works.
- Dark Messiah: The Taliban, as discussed in Nurullah's opening narration. Even if their ways are brutally repressive, he rightly points out that the land's troubles did not start with them - they were simply the first to offer the Afghan people some semblance of stability after decades of war, which they enforced through their extreme interpretation of the Islamic Sharia.
- Derelict Graveyard: The countryside of Afghanistan is littered with broken tanks and ordinances, all leftovers of the Soviet invasion more than a decade earlier. Nobody bothers to remove them, since they presently have bigger things to worry about.
- Dirty Coward: Idrees is more than happy to bully hapless street vendors or young kids, and is responsible for having the Taliban arrest the one-legged and middle-aged Nurullah. But in his last scene, when he's told he's going to the front and sits in a Taliban truck next to other fighters, he looks flat-out terrified. Not to mention his attempt at firing a gun visibly startles him.
- Don't Split Us Up: Parvana is against moving far away for her sister's Arranged Marriage before her father gets out of prison. Later, Fattema's relative comes to collect her, Soraya, and Zaki while Parvana is out of the house, meaning she would be left behind and have no way to reach them. Fattema feels so strongly about this she calls off the wedding, despite knowing he may kill her for doing so.
- Early-Bird Cameo: Razaq, the man who hired Parvana-as-Aartesh to read him a letter, and later asked to teach him to read and write and eventually got her Baba out of prison is in the opening scene. He's the man with Idrees, telling him to calm down.
- Everybody Lives: Surprisingly, despite the harsh and brutal nature of the film, none of the characters are shown to die during the course of the story (though their chances of surviving long afterwards are pretty low). Sulayman and the three skeletons at the bottom of the well died in the backstory, and the fictional old horse probably died not long after fictional Sulayman left it. A few prisoners appear to be gunned down off screen, but Razaq somehow managed to survive the same thing and we never see any corpses.
- Felony Misdemeanor: Played for Drama. Any woman or girl caught out of the house without her husband or brother is beaten black and blue for it at best, and merchants caught selling to women (or having a girl assist with selling) risk getting severely punished by the Taliban. Parvana's father is also arrested for teaching his daughters how to read.
- Foreshadowing: Jet fighters are seen throughout the middle of the film, once they begin dropping bombs, it's clear that America has begun its attack on the Taliban by the end of the movie.
- Freudian Slip: When Parvana leaves to visit her Baba in prison to tell him that they'll be in Mazar-e-Sharif and bring him his walking stick, her Mama-jan begs her not to go, calling her by her dead brother's name, worried that she'll never come back.
- Good Parents: Parvana's parents are very kind, peaceful, and loving, especially her father.
- Gory Discretion Shot: In the process of tying up loose ends on the eve of battle, the Taliban gun down a group of prisoners just outside the frame.
- He-Man Woman Hater: The Taliban enforce extremely strict rules on women, including that they are not allowed to leave their home without being accompanied by a male family member.
- Here We Go Again!: The history of Afghanistan is noted to be one of facing off various empires unable to conquer it, with Afghan society still recovering from the Soviet invasion. By the end of the movie, America has begun its attack on Afghanistan to kickstart The War on Terror.
- Informed Attribute: Fattema often remarks that disguised-as-a-boy Parvana looks just like her older brother Sulayman did before he died (to the point that she makes a Wrong Name Outburst at one point). Yet, in the brief glimpse of him we see at the beginning and his appearance in her Story Within a Story, he looks almost nothing like her.
- Marital Rape License: The film doesn't outright say it, but it's implied plenty. Nurallah gets understandably protective when a teenage Talib mentions that Parvana is old enough to marry him, Soraya isn't happy with being married off, and Shauzia tearfully tells Parvana "Maybe they'll find you a husband too, and all your troubles will be over, until after the wedding at least," when she explains her situation.
- Meaningful Name:
- Nurullah, the wisest and most well-learned character in the film, has a name that means "light of God".
- Invoked by Razaq, who tells Parvana that "Hala," his deceased wife, is named after the light that shines around the moon on a clear night.
- No Good Deed Goes Unpunished:
- Razaq helps get Parvana's father out of prison, and gets shot in the shoulder for his efforts. It's implied he may die of his injuries soon.
- Discussed by Shauzia. When Parvana expresses guilt over not stepping in and helping a woman who was beaten for being out without her husband or burkha, Shauzia shrugs and says that she'd just be helping herself to a beating.
- Nominal Importance: Also discussed by Shauzia. She asks about the boy's name in Parvana's Story Within a Story, saying she can't tell a story about a boy and not give the boy a name. Parvana names him Sulayman, after her dead brother, causing Shauzia to smile and say, "That's a good name."
- Ocean Awe: Parvana and Shauzia are both fascinated by the sea, a place they have never been to, and their promised place to meet twenty years later is the beach of Goa. When Shauzia brings out a photo of the beach, it's shown to be downright gorgeous, a stark contrast to the dusty brown environment of Kabul. Living in a landlocked country tends to do that.
- Posthumous Character: Parvana's deceased brother, Sulayman, is personified by the boy protagonist of the fairy tale she narrates throughout the movie.
- The Promise: As with the book, Parvana and Shauzia make a promise to meet at a place outside of Afghanistan twenty years later. However, while the book has them pick the Eiffel Tower as their destination, in the film, it is the beach of Goa.
- Promotion to Parent: Downplayed for Soraya and Parvana. After their father is sent to prison and their mother is severely beaten for leaving the house without him, Fatama becomes too injured and depressed to care for her children, so Soraya (as the eldest) takes over as head of the household, and Parvana (disguised as a boy) takes over as breadwinner.
- Punch-Clock Villain: Razaq starts the movie as this, being a footsoldier for the Taliban but displaying none of the viciousness of his comrades, and even having several Pet the Dog moments towards Parvana. By the end of the film, he undergoes a full HeelFace Turn and rescues Nurallah from prison, and it's implied to be at the cost of his life.
- Reckless Gun Usage: At one point, Idrees absent-mindedly points his rifle at an older Taliban fighter, earning himself a Dope Slap. And just a moment earlier, he accidentally pulled the trigger, firing a few automatic shots into the air. Many other Taliban enforcers are seen holding their guns casually through crowded public spaces.
- Reds with Rockets: The Soviet military appears in a flashback (as silhouettes) in the intro of the movie, and the legacy of the Soviet intervention is felt throughout the movie. Tanks still lay in ruin and mines deployed by both sides still claim many lives like Suleiman and Hala years later. Ironically, many Afghans had been united against the Communist forces, only to emerge bitterly divided once extremists such as the Taliban took over.
- The Reveal: No one in Parvana's family wants to talk about how her older brother died. At the end of the film, the Story Within a Story reveals that he picked up a toy in the street that had a bomb inside it.
- Rewatch Bonus: It's easy to miss the fact that Nurallah is missing a leg the first time watching before Idrees orders him to stand up. Similarly, the image of a boy in the fetal position surrounded by clouds that the movie opens with is given no context, but has a lot of significance after watching and realizing that it's Parvana's memory of her dead brother. Even more significance after learning he died in an explosion.
- Riches to Rags:
- While not exactly loaded, Parvana's family was well-off before the Taliban takeover of Kabul, as her father had a stable job as a teacher, while her mother was a writer.
- As Parvana's father recounts in his story, Afghanistan used to be a proud nation who brought the world precious stones, knowledge and hospitality. Now it is a poor, Third World state ruled by a bunch of fanatical fundamentalists. He does, however, make a point that the current Taliban rule is, for many Afghans (though not him), an improvement after decades of war.
- Rule of Three: Unsurprisingly shows up a bit in the Story Within a Story.
- The Scapegoat: Parvana's father reveals in the start in the film that decades of war and chaos led to people turning to leaders who would restore some semblance of normalcy, and the Taliban did that by blaming women and forcing them back into the home.
- Scenery Gorn: The dusty, war-torn urban squalor of Kabul, the remoteness of the brick quarries, the dystopic facade of the Pul-e-Charkhi prison and the sprawling graveyard of Soviet vehicles are all illustrated in haunting beauty.
- Secular Hero: Averted. The characters are routinely shown performing Islamic rites and customs throughout the movie.
- Setting Update: While the original book was written in 2000, when the Taliban were still in power, the movie is clearly set in late 2001, on the eve of the American-led invasion of Afghanistan.
- The Storyteller: Parvana's father. After his arrest, Parvana takes up the mantle to keep everyone's spirits up.
- Story Within a Story: Throughout the movie, Parvana periodically tells the story of a boy who goes on a quest to retrieve seeds his village needs to survive that were stolen by the Elephant King. Each instance, the story is loosely related to what she is going through at the time.
- Strong Family Resemblance: Fattema often remarks that disguised-as-a-boy Parvana looks just like her older brother Sulayman (who was around her current age when he died). Soraya also bears a striking resemblence to Fattema, underlined by their matching green hijabs.
- Token Good Teammate: Razaq is part of the Taliban, but he is very kind, gentle, and soft-spoken.
- Translation Convention: Everyone speaks English, however, there are a few cases where real Dari is spoken (although they are translated). Also, the prayers are still in Arabic.
- Turn of the Millennium: Set in the year 2001, just before the start of the War on Terror.
- Twelfth Night Adventure: Parvana spends a good chunk of the movie dressing up as a boy, under the name "Aatish", to help provide for her family.
- War Is Hell: One of the main themes of the film.