Whenever she was hit by the monumental pressure of directing a feature-length animated film—her follow-up to 2009’s Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells, no less—Nora Twomey would tiptoe into the most peaceful room in the house.
“I’d just lay my head on the pillow with my young son,” the filmmaker says, Skyping with the Georgia Straight from Los Angeles. “And that would quiet my brain down.”
One can only imagine how fast Twomey’s brain was running as she grappled with the job of adapting The Breadwinner. Set in the late ’90s, Deborah Ellis’s novel tells the story of Parvana, an Afghan girl who disguises herself as a boy when her father is imprisoned by the Taliban, leaving the 11-year-old to support her family.
Twomey was extremely mindful of the project’s “overwhelming” political and cultural sensitivities. Screenwriter Anita Doron was no less conscientious, bringing in Afghan artist Aman Mojadidi to help with the script while Angelina Jolie brought her formidable ambassadorial skills as executive producer, urging Twomey to cast Afghan voice actors wherever possible (and leaving video messages for cast and crew whenever the production reached an important milestone).
But it was in those quiet moments alone with her son that Twomey landed on some of The Breadwinner’s most effective beats. Eventually, the image of a mother taking refuge in sleep was built into the film.
“In one sense, there’s a level of just small, universal things,” she explains. “Scratching a beard; sitting down with someone and not looking at them while you’re talking but just watching people go by—whatever. These kinds of things are what I and the rest of the animation team hung on to to create something that reached out toward the audience.”
Most critical of all, like all of the work created by Twomey and her partners at Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon studio, The Breadwinner never talks down to its young (or not so young) audience.
“I read one review where the critic was quite puzzled,” she reports with a chuckle. “It was like, ‘Why would you make an animated film about this? It’s a subject matter that doesn’t belong in animation.’ That, for me, is really shocking, that someone is so blinkered that they can only look at animation that way; that you have to be able to plunk your kid in front of it and run off and do the vacuuming or whatever.”
The Breadwinner goes into general release in early December, but attendees at this year’s Spark Animation 2017 festival can get a sneak preview at the Scotiabank Theatre on Thursday (October 26), with Twomey herself in attendance to receive one of the festival’s three Women in Animation Diversity awards. She’ll also be on hand at Friday’s business symposium (October 27) and Saturday’s industry conference (October 28) to discuss her own “meandering path” into the field, which took root in art school when anyone in Dublin with a pencil and some drafting skills was trying to get a job with former Disney animator Don Bluth.
Now based about a million miles from Hollywood, in Kilkenny, Twomey and her partners at Cartoon Saloon employ up to 150 people—an inspiring tale, no doubt, for Sparkheads imagining their own path into the business. And to that end, Spark’s career fair runs at the Vancouver Convention Centre over the weekend (October 28 and 29). The fest is rounded out with a spotlight on France and a host of other screenings, including the breathtaking, Ghibli-inspired Chinese feature Big Fish & Begonia and a closing-night premiere of Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s Mary and the Witch’s Flower.
Spark Animation 2017 runs from Thursday to Sunday (October 26 to 29). More information is at www.sparkfx.ca/.