- 01 Jun 18
Back with another stunning, Oscar-nominated affort in The Breadwinner, Cartoon Saloon’s Nora Twomey explains why the film’s powerful story – about an 11-year-old girl trying to survive in Afghanistan – was best told through animation. Interview Roe McDermott
Nora Twomey can now call herself an Oscars regular. The animator, director and co-founder of Cartoon Saloon has now been three times, with The Secret Of Kells, Song Of The Sea and now The Breadwinner.
The stunning feature tells the story of Parvana, an 11-year-old girl in Afghanistan who must disguise herself as a boy to help her family. Nominated for Best Animated Film at this year’s Academy Awards, the film is rightfully scooping up praise left, right and centre for its incredible artistry.
But was making an animated film about Afghanistan a hard sell, when we more commonly associate animation with cheerful kids’ films?
“Animation is a medium, it’s not a genre,” says Twomey. “But we treat it like a genre. We believe that with animation, you need to be able to plonk a three-year-old in front of it while you do the ironing. But it’s capable of doing so much more, and it can activate people’s empathy in a way live action sometimes has trouble doing. Because when you simplify a character down to just a few lines, it makes that character more universal.
“So watching a young girl like Parvana go through some of the things she does in the film, in live action that would be utterly heartbreaking, maybe too much. But through animation, it’s filtered through the artists’ hands, through their pencils and brushstrokes. In a way, it sugars the pill, because you can explore deep issues with artistry, beauty and skill. Animation has been branded a babysitter, but it is an artform.”
Apart from the hard sell of convincing adults to attend an animated feature, The Breadwinner also presented Twomey with another challenge. While Song Of The Sea and The Secret Of Kells were based in Ireland and had a traditional Irish aesthetic, The Breadwinner – based on the book by Deborah Ellis – is set in Afghanistan, a country with a complex history of culture, conflict and religion. Twomey knew the only way to approach it was to listen to the voices of others.
“I knew we needed to include the voices of as many Afghan people as possible,” she says, “so that even if all of the specifics of each of their stories weren’t included, the tone and feel would depict a rich, deep heritage. It’s the story of a people who have been through decades of conflict. When you go into a film like The Breadwinner like I did, you need to go in without an ego, knowing you know nothing. Because then you have the opportunity to listen and learn.”
But the joy and beauty of The Breadwinner is that it is so accessible and empathetic.
“When I read Deborah Ellis’ book, I found things to connect with in that character in a really strong way,” reflects Twomey. “And even though I didn’t know about what it would be like to grow up in that environment, I understood her. And that is the power of story, that no matter where it’s set, we’ll follow a child who has courage and flaws and love. Anyone can understand that.”
Parvana’s rights and autonomy are denied because of her gender – a subject that feels incredibly prescient. Twomey was at the Golden Globes and Oscars this year, and has thus been immersed in the discourse around gender equality in film – but is the animation industry any better in terms of equality and representation?
“It depends on where you are,” muses the director. “When I started out in college, I was one of four girls in a room of 30 students, but if I go into a college now, it’s 50-50. But encouragement is needed for women at every stage of the industry, to make sure that they stay, and particularly that they strive for the next level and seek out recognition for their work.
“I would, on a production, find problems and try solve all of them myself, instead of saying ‘No, I’m not doing that, I’m going to become a supervisor.’ Women need to be encouraged not to take on more work, and they often need to be told, ‘Your responsibility now is to move up a level, train someone else into your position there, and keep moving. Keep ascending.’ That’s the kind of balance we need – it’s not just about entry level numbers, it’s about position and power.”
Like many women, Twomey is somewhat exhausted by having to constantly fight for the rights of women – and like many women, she also knows these conversations are necessary.
“On the one hand, I’m sick to the teeth of answering questions about being a woman in the industry. But I know I have to have these conversations, so that my nieces never have to. You want the next generation to enter the film industry and never feel that they’re being held back because of their gender.”
On that note, and given the subject matter of The Breadwinner, I ask Twomey how she feels about the upcoming abortion referendum [this interview was conducted before the vote - Ed], where women are yet again fighting for the right to bodily autonomy.
“I‘m 46,” says Twomey. “I understand the complexity on both sides and I understand how emotional it is for people in this country, and I respect that. But at 46, I’ve been through every type of situation with my friends and community and I know that voting Yes is the right thing to do.”
The Breadwinner is in cinemas now.