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Years ago she’d fallen in love with the young adult novel when a librarian had recommended the Deborah Ellis book. Chaudry had even exchanged emails with the Canadian author, met her at a school book reading and asked about a potential movie.
The Breadwinner, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, tells the story of an indomitable 11-year-old Afghan girl named Parvana. When her father is suddenly arrested in Kabul by the Taliban, Parvana dresses as a boy so she can work to support her family and venture out to discover if her father is still alive.
“I’m not an organizer. I’m not a good fundraiser. But I thought if I could go over there, collect some of their stories and find out who they are — how they deal with all of this, what they were living through, how they were reacting to it — that that might be useful,” the Simcoe, Ont.-based writer told CBC News recently during an interview at her local library, where she goes daily to research and write.
While there, Ellis learned of girls who disguised themselves as boys — who were permitted to leave the house unaccompanied under the oppressive rules of the Taliban regime — in order to support their families.
“But she rises to the circumstances that life throws at her.”
Since the publication of the original book in 2000, Ellis’s tales of Parvana’s persistence have inspired millions of readers and helped raise close to $ 2 million for Parvana’s Fund, a charity to support education projects for Afghan women and children.
First, Canadian and Irish producers optioned the book to adapt it as an animated feature. Once a screenplay was completed, director Nora Twomey approached Jolie to serve as an executive producer, since the actor and director has had her own experiences in Afghanistan as a UNHCR goodwill ambassador promoting education for girls.
When Mahon first saw the film, he was struck by images of rusted-out Soviet tanks that pockmark the landscape and knew the story was in good hands. It’s details like that, he said, which separate this film from others depicting his homeland.
Mahon praised the “authenticity and respect to the local culture, while not following any political agenda, because The Breadwinner does not express any political opinion. It’s just a story of one human being and her family.”
The Breadwinner isn’t the only TIFF movie with a Canadian-Afghanistan connection. Similar to The Breadwinner, Afghan-born Vancouver director Tarique Qayumi’s Black Kite focuses on the fortunes of a family trying to escape life under the Taliban.
When he filmed Black Kite in Kabul in 2014, Qayumi’s cast and crew dodged bullets in hallways and embassy bombings. What kept them going was the notion of using storytelling to give back what the Taliban had stolen.
“Eighty per cent of [Afghanistan’s] population is under 25,” noted Qayumi, who had worked in Afghanistan as a journalist.
Young actor Chaudry also hopes The Breadwinner will be an inspiration: that girls everywhere believe they can be masters of their own fate.
The Breadwinner opens in November. TIFF continues through Sept. 17.