Reflective Animation

Nora Twomey is an Irish-born animator who works for Cartoon Saloon. Her previous work as director includes the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells. She now returns with The Breadwinner, a stirring adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ best-selling book, which tells of Parvana (voiced by Canadian actress Saara Chaudry), an 11 year-girl living in Kabul, Afghanistan, under the shadow of Taliban.

ASFF: What did you make of Deborah Ellis’ book when you first read it?
NT: I was completely enthralled with the character of Parvana, and the way Deborah Ellis writes for young people. [She] doesn’t talk down to them in a way that acknowledges the complexity of the subject matter. She’d based her book on talking to a lot of women who had come out of Afghanistan into refugee camps in Pakistan in the late 1990s, during the Taliban era.

ASFF: How would you characterise the importance of your relationship with your voice actors?
NT: You need to make sure that the relationship works really well because actors need to trust directors and directors need to trust actors in a way. You’re in a darkened sound booth; you have very little visual reference to explain where the character is, how far away the camera is, what type of room their in, who they’re interacting with … so I knew it was a very special relationship between animation directors and actors. Saara has incredible qualities … she was only 11 at the time we recorded her.

ASFF: Angelina Jolie came on board as executive producer. How did she help on a practical level?
She very much encouraged us to get as many Afghan voices as we could into the filmmaking process. We had lots of people from different ethnicities, from inside and outside Afghanistan – people who had also been refugees. And then honestly just having another female filmmaker to talk to about the more mundane tasks of filmmaking was really helpful.

ASFF: How did you set about translating the book, with its nods to Afghan culture, to animation?
NT: Parvana’s imagination is rooted in the history and culture of Afghanistan … we very much looked at all of that for her interior life and tried to infuse as many different styles as we could within that to give it some depth. And then the real world in which Parvana inhabits, her everyday life in Kabul, we wanted to inject a sense of realism into that. The character designs are simplified a little, in order to have our audience identify a little bit more.

ASFF: You’re a mother of two. Does that help in working on a children’s movie?
As a mother I try to tell this film for my own children – I have a 7 year-old and a 9 year-old. Again, I’ve always been amazed by the things that challenge them or frighten them. It’s never the things I expect to frighten them – it can be the face that they see in leaves on a tree or something like that! So as a filmmaker, those things are always interesting to me.

The Breadwinner opens in cinemas on 25 May. For more details, visit:

James Mottram

1. Trailer from The Breadwinner. Courtesy of Vimeo.