Seeing her latest directorial outing, First They Killed My Father, selected as the Cambodian entry this year for Best Foreign Language Film, humanitarian and Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie has also been making the rounds of late in support of The Breadwinner, Nora Twomey’s Oscar-nominated animated feature, which she produced.
Based on a best-selling novel by Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner tells the story of Parvana, a young Afghan girl whose father is sent to prison, and must then dress as a boy to provide for her family. A reminder of Jolie’s deep concern for women and children around the world—particularly in war-torn countries—Twomey’s film is consistent with a mission Jolie embarked on decades ago, as she set out to attend to women and children, immigrants and refugees, through channels both legislative and narrative.
The challenge with The Breadwinner was to handle the material as deftly and responsibly as possible, depicting the gravity of Parvana’s situation while conveying at the same time a sense of hope. “It’s a really fine line that they walked, and I think people don’t realize it when they watch the film,” Jolie says. “To get to that point in the end where you have hope, but you also don’t see that the planes coming in are suddenly the great saviors, and that’s what the country was waiting for. [Being] realistic about the years to come in the country, and where the country’s at now…I think she walked that line magnificently.”
Angelina, why did you feel compelled to board The Breadwinner as a producer?
Angelina Jolie: I wanted to work with Nora, and the book was special to my children, so I already knew the story. I have spent a lot of time in Pakistan, Afghanistan, with Afghan people. I have a love and respect for Afghan people, and I thought, “How wonderful that there would be something relatable, like animation, that can tell something as heavy as this story through the eyes of a child, in this unique art form.”
Nora, how would you describe your collaboration with Angelina on this film? What kind of notes did she offer throughout the process?
Nora Twomey: The first time I met Angie, it really felt like a continuation of a conversation, rather than the beginning of one, because your sensibilities were so aligned with the type of film that we were trying to make.
Anita Doron did an incredible job with the screenplay, but I think it was when we started getting into the animatics that the collaboration was most helpful for me. Angie would watch the animatics. Then, she would call, or we’d meet in London to discuss it. It’s such an emotional story, so to get that emotional kind of beat running through the film, and to make sure the sensibility of that was correct…
Jolie: I couldn’t believe how you told the history of Afghanistan. To most people, it’s too complicated, it’s too long—and to do it in a way that’s really appealing, you had a lot to cover.
From a producing standpoint, it seems like there were certain moral and philosophical issues you contemplated in how you made the film—visible, for example, in your decision to cast primarily Afghan actors.
Twomey: Yeah, you were the first person who said that—“Where we can, cast Afghan actors.” I remember saying, “Well, it’s a co-production between Canada and Ireland, and Luxembourg, where we raised the money.” [laughs]
Jolie: It’s really difficult, because it’s not like she could just go and sit in Afghanistan and find Afghan actors who could also speak English. It was a real combination of people [from Afghanistan] and different people who’d been displaced. There’s not a lot who can act, who’d been displaced, who had that heritage, who understood the heritage.
But I didn’t have to push. That was already what they were wanting to do. To find enough people, and find the balance, it wasn’t easy. But the effort is the right thing—and not just because it’s morally right, but also because, of course, every culture has extremely talented people, so there’s no reason why you’d have to cast outside of the actual culture. Unless, like in Nora’s case, it was really complicated where she was to find enough people who had that combination.
Has it been your experience that films like The Breadwinner are difficult to produce? It would seem that Hollywood has certain biases toward American stories and actors who are well-known quantities.
Jolie: I think it is. We both made films this year with women in war—both with little girls, both films with nobody known in them. Both directed by women. I think it can be hard, but in some way, fortunately for us, you just couldn’t put somebody in either one of those films. You couldn’t just suddenly put a voice in The Breadwinner that would make sense to the film. That’s one of the reasons I was very happy to be able to come on, to at least try to bring a little more attention to the piece, because it was better that it came behind the camera, than what was going on in front of the camera, and on the screen. What was happening on the screen had to be as authentic as possible.
As you’ve noted, both The Breadwinner and First They Killed My Father center on young women thrown into difficult situations who are forced to grow up rather quickly. What has inspired you to bring these subjects to the forefront?
Jolie: I think the fact that young girls in war are the most vulnerable people on earth.
Twomey: Yeah, absolutely. You don’t see many stories about that, and I think it’s of the time, and it’s interesting that you would direct First They Killed My Father. I think The Breadwinner being made at the same time, and seeing women in positions where we can tell stories, this is something that 20 years ago would have been completely unheard of, really—or very rare.
To see women tell stories as mothers, as well, makes a huge difference—and to tell stories that are empathetic, and that are at a child’s view. From that perspective, it’s a different type of storytelling, and I think it’s wonderful to see it finally getting into cinema screens, and getting into people’s homes.
Do these films take on added resonance or urgency with current happenings in the world, in American politics, the #MeToo movement or elsewhere?
Jolie: I think if both of these films maybe highlight anything, it’s not just the vulnerability of women, but that this is not a “today issue.” This has been an issue for a very, very long time. There have been people fighting this battle for a long time, and there are little girls like Parvana, on the border of Myanmar, who are being raped, today, and not enough is being done. Not enough is being spoken about on their behalf.
This little girl, Parvana, and what she went through, and the fact that over half the girls in Afghanistan still don’t have an education, and how dangerous their lives are, and how much poverty they live in, also just illustrates the bigger, global problems women are facing.
Having worked through plenty of legislative channels on behalf of children’s rights, what value do you see in storytelling that can speak to these global issues, as opposed to fighting the good fight in the political realm?
Jolie: I think if you can’t travel to places, then we can bring these places and these people closer to you through film. If you haven’t met a Parvana, and had the opportunity that we’ve had—the good fortune to meet a Parvana, or a Loung [Ung]—you can meet them, and you can be moved by them, and you can spend time with them during the time you watch the film. Having a human connection, an emotional connection, is often the most important thing.
It’s not just the act of changing law, it’s that people know why they feel compelled to do it, and that they feel connected to other human beings across the world, and they feel emotional about what their needs are. Then, they’re compelled. So it helps us to first engage people emotionally.
Twomey: Just being storytellers, wanting to tell stories and wanting to communicate something to people—especially a story of this nature—I think it’s extremely important. So why not, you know?
What was really hopeful to me with this film was people drawing—people drawing in Ireland, in Luxembourg, in Canada. As a group of artists, and producers, and executive producers, all of us were able to come together to tell one story. That’s an extremely hopeful thing.
Jolie: I didn’t realize, because I hadn’t worked on animation in that way—I’d only loaned my voice before—that really, it’s a very different collaboration, and it’s intimate in a different way.
For this, in particular, it’s beautiful because everybody worked on it because Nora wanted to be so true and authentic to Afghanistan, with the research done, and the music, and the light. When you have that many people spending that much time just thinking about this little girl, and her father, and this country that’s been through so much, just to have that long meditation and dedication to create as artists, it’s a great thing.
What has your reaction been to changes occurring in the industry this year, as far as the representation of women on screen, and in all disciplines of filmmaking? What has excited you, and where is there still a lot of work to be done?
Twomey: It’s great to see all the attention this year on women filmmakers, seeing so much support there for, but I would hate to think that it’s something that people will move on from because it needs to be a concerted effort over a long period of time. What I’ve found really interesting is women filmmakers supporting each other, and talking to each other, and coming together to try and make sure that it continues on—that it’s something that, through the decades, will continue on. Half of the stories in this world need to be told by women, because we’re half of this world.
For each of you, what is the mission going forward? Angelina, you’re heading into Maleficent 2 soon, so how do you balance your sense of social responsibility with simple pleasures taken in storytelling?
Jolie: I think that’s life, isn’t it? I’m sure you’re the same as a person. You have your creative, and you have your work, and every day of your life is going to be about somehow growing as a person. Somehow feeling you can contribute to the extent that you can get tribute.
Nora and I, when we spend time alone, spend most of our time just talking about being moms, and I think that’s the balance. We’re all trying to find balance, as people. I think to be a balanced person, you have to find those things that you just purely enjoy. But, of course, if you aren’t participating in the bigger picture of life, and in being somehow useful, and you aren’t doing something and growing, then really, you’ll find you’re not very happy. Really, you’ll have quite an empty life.
Twomey: Every day, you slip and slide between one thing and another. Sometimes, very vast things. But that’s just life, as Angie says. You just get on with it, you know?