Nora Twomey on Oscar-nominated Irish animation The Breadwinner
Irish animation director Nora Twomey talks to Jenny Lee about the emotional experience of working on her Oscar-nominated film The Breadwinner while battling breast cancer and the global impact of the film, which she brings back to Belfast this weekend at Cinemagic
SHE may have dropped out of school at the age of 15, but Nora Twomey's creative skills and determination have combined to make her one of the most respected film animators in the world.
Her 2017 feature film The Breadwinner has received wide-spread critical acclaim and a plethora of awards, including an Oscar nomination at this year's Academy Awards.
The Cork native is a co-founder of the revered, Kilkenny-based, Cartoon Saloon. Set up in 1999, alongside Newry-born Tomm Moore and Roscommon man Paul Young, the film studio boasts three Oscar nominations and produces a host of animation shorts, including their Emmy nominated preschool series, Puffin Rock, currently broadcast worldwide on Netflix in over 25 languages.
The Breadwinner tells the story of Parvana, an 11-year-old girl growing up under the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. When her father is wrongfully arrested, the family struggle to survive without a male relative to earn a living for them – so brave Parvana cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy in order to work.
Kabul opens up to her as she walks through the city in boys' clothes and she finds a freedom she had never known.
The film was adapted from Deborah Ellis' book The Breadwinner. "I felt great love for the character of Parvana from the first chapter," says Nora.
"I had never experienced a character as solid and wonderfully flawed and real as Parvana. When we started the production of the film I felt the same level of interest in her. I couldn't stop thinking about her, her family and where she lived and what she went through."
The production involved a cast and crew drawn from three continents, with a tremendous amount of careful research involved to ensure authenticity.
"The challenge we had when we were making the film was that we couldn't walk back in time," says Nora.
"Eighty per cent of Kabul had been destroyed and cameras weren't allowed. So we relied upon people of different ethnic and religious groups who had been there at the turn of the millennium to gain a sense of the real Kabul and the oppression women felt at that time."
Whilst The Breadwinner has women's rights at its core, it explores so much more.
"It's about the effect of war on families," Nora explains.
"The reasons for war in Afghanistan are not simple. What we wanted to do with this film was to get young people to not just form an opinion based on a headline: we wanted them to delve deeper and try to understand what it's like for people growing up in conflict and how this can have repercussions for years."
Was it perhaps apt for an Irish filmmaker to explore such a subject?
"Exactly," she agrees. "It takes very little to destroy and decades to rebuild.
"I've been privileged to visit China, Russia and South America seen how [the film] has touched people in different ways. But everyone connects with Parvana – at its heart is a child just trying to do her best for her family."
Animation is a painstaking pursuit, with perhaps just six or seven seconds of actions delivered per week. The Breadwinner took four years to make and, during the final year of production, Nora discovered she had breast cancer.
She underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but not even illness stopped her continuing to work on the film.
Nora admits her cancer journey had a physical, emotional and creative impact upon her.
"There was an interesting parallel between trying to understand what it would be like for Parvana to cut her hair as she changed her identity and having my own visual identity altered as I went from long hair to no hair.
"Everything that happens to you informs the work you do. Cancer is a very individual thing. I did the best I could and, for me, that was carrying my laptop with me – whether that was when I was being infused with chemotherapy or wherever.
"When you think our team was international, working all over the world and coming together to tell one story, my own personal experience gave us a sense of hope," adds the mother of two.
Hollywood A-lister Angelina Jolie, the film's executive producer, was among the team members who encouraged Nora.
"She was a really wise guiding force with the project," says the director.
"We were very aware that the sensitivity of the film had to be correct. Angelina had set up a girls school in Afghanistan over a decade ago, so her heart is very close to the subject matter of the film.
"She was also a great encouragement to our team, sending us messages throughout and then standing with us on the red carpet at the launch in Toronto."
I ask Nora if she would ever contemplate making a film about cancer:
"It's quite raw for me – a little bit of distance is not a bad thing," she tells me, before adding: "I don't know, maybe down the line."
Despite having left left school before doing her exams to work in a factory cutting vegetables, Nora managed to turn her love of drawing into a career, enrolling in Ballyfermot College, Dublin's highly successful animation program.
Nora will be appearing at Belfast's QFT this Saturday at a screening of The Breadwinner, which film critic Mark Kermode selected for his regular Mark Kermode Film Night at Cinemagic 2018.
Her advice to budding animators is to "follow what you love, keep asking questions and find people who will inspire you".
"Cinemagic over the last three decades has done an absolutely incredible job of encouraging young people," Nora continues.
"What you do every day is also important for your wellbeing. If you do something you love, that's the only goal any of us can ever have – and, if you're determined, you'll make your own way in life."
Alongside the film's Oscar-nod, her own determination was rewarded earlier this year at the 45th Annie Awards in Los Angeles where The Breadwinner won Best Animated Feature for an Independent Film – the first solo female director to win the award.
Nora has also been appointed a member of the Academy and will cast her vote for next year's Oscars.
Cartoon Saloon's next animated feature will be Tomm Moore's Wolfwalkers: set in Kilkenny around the mid-1600s, it centres on a young apprentice hunter who comes to Ireland with her father to wipe out the last pack of wolves.
Their next television series to hit our screens will be Dorg van Dango on Nickeloden and they are just starting to develop Viking Skool for the Disney Channel.
Nora's next feature will be My Father's Dragon, based on a children's novel by Ruth Stiles Gannett about "a young boy who has lost his footing in life".
:: Cartoon Saloon's Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey and Paul Young will be at QFT Belfast for a triple screening of The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner on Saturday October 20 as part of the Cinemagic Film Festival and QFT 50 celebrations. For further information and tickets visit Cinemagic.org.uk and Queensfilmtheatre.com.