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If Afghanistan Ran The Oscars, 'The Breadwinner' Would Triumph

Parvana runs through a street market in the trailer for "The Breadwinner".

Sunday night, the Oscars will pick the best animated feature. Pixar's Coco is the favorite. But if the choice were up to Afghans, they'd go for The Breadwinner.

The animated film, produced by actress Angelina Jolie, tells the story of an 11-year-old girl named Parvana and her family, who are struggling to survive in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. She must pretend to be a boy so she can work to support her family. The film is an adaptation of a book by Canadian author Deborah Ellis.

While the movie has been released in the U.S. as well as Canada, China, France, the U.K. and some countries in the Middle East, it has yet to be screened in the few theaters across Afghanistan. But last month, a small group of Afghans had a chance to see the film at the Canadian embassy in Kabul.

For many of the Afghan viewers, it was a deeply emotional experience, bringing back memories of the time when the Taliban ruled, from the late 1990s to 2001. The regime imposed a strict interpretation of Islam and severely restricted women's freedoms.

"After the movie was over and the lights were turned back on, I saw tears in the eyes of many Afghans. I couldn't stop my own tears," says Abdul Rahim Ahmad Parwani, deputy country director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, an organization that supports education for Afghan women and girls. "There was a short uncalled-for silence at the end of the film. That itself explains how the movie connected with Afghans."

The Canadian group, which helped host the screening, receives proceeds from Ellis' book.

For some in the audience, Parvana is an all-too familiar character. "[My sister] Tamanna was the reason I was able to go to school. She was our breadwinner," says Omaid Sharifi, co-founder of ArtLords, a Kabul-based group that uses art for social change.

"I was not able to go to school for a long time during the Taliban regime because I had to tend to our shop in the city center," he says. "But then my sister took charge of the shop for a few hours every day so I could go study."

It wasn't just the emotional appeal of recent history that intrigued the Afghan viewers but also the cultural accuracy. Mina Sharifi [no relation to Omaid] is the founder and director of Sisters 4 Sisters, a mentorship program for Afghan girls. She was part of the production of another Oscar-nominated film on Afghanistan, The Buzkashi Boys, in 2012, and found that the little details in The Breadwinner made all the difference.

"The clothing, the food, the family atmosphere, even the cane that the grandfather carried was carved and looked just like it was from here," she says. "I haven't seen another film on Afghanistan that takes the time to do that."

Very often, she says, movies set in Afghanistan are so badly researched that some filmmakers thought the national language was Arabic.

Afghan women viewers in Kabul and other countries approved of the strong female character, a rarity in narratives about Afghanistan. "Parvana is the first time on a major screen that an Afghan girl tells her own story, in her own words," says Aisha Azimi, an Afghan-American studying at George Washington University, who saw the film in the U.S. "When I watched the film, I saw the pride in their eyes for Afghan girls all around me. Finally we had our own stories told, from our point of view."

Moved by the realistic portrayal of Afghan women, Omaid and his group painted a mural of the film poster on one of the many "blast walls" that have been built in Kabul as a result of the increasing frequency of attacks. Painting over the gray concrete barriers has been a defining project of what ArtLords does.

"To have a strong female character in the lead is something everybody in Afghanistan needs to see: father, brother, women and their daughters," says Mina.

Ruchi Kumar is a journalist who reports from India and Afghanistan on conflict, politics, development and culture stories. She tweets at @RuchiKumar

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