IDFA Interview: George Gittoes (Snow Monkey)


The Australian artist and filmmaker George Gittoes has been living in a compound in Jalalabad with his wife since 2011. 

The Yellow House is an Afghan refuge that also serves as a film set. It’s an assembly line for cheap Pashtun films that don’t shy away from violence. In one particularly amusing scene, a shoot is disrupted by the noise of megaphones used by a gang of young ice cream sellers. Dressed in traditional Afghan dress, Gittoes approaches them and then decides to get the boys together with two other youth gangs from the city by getting them to act in and make a film.

This is how “Baba,” as he is affectionately known, attempts to create a better future for destitute young people, forced into work by their parents. It garners him a compliment from a visiting local Taliban leader: “All Afghans love him,” he explains. What follows is a non-judgmental collage of scenes of joy and brutality, with only the aspect ratio giving away whether what is happening is acted or real. On and off set, the street urchins act like Mafiosi, while their hashish and heroin addict fathers waste away in the nearby park. The constant threat posed by drones and ground attacks make little impression on the youth – life goes on.

What was the starting point of this film?
All of my films are about culture within conflict. The film is part of a trilogy. The first film was ‘Miscreants of Taliwood. I was in Afghanistan doing a project ith the United Nations at the time of 9/11. I had a good relationship with the Taliban and a lot of the people there, but I thought it was more important to cover the conflict in Iraq, so I left after that film and made ‘Soundtrack to War’. I did that in conjunction with VH1. Then, I wanted to go back to Afghanistan, as I am one of the few people who understand the culture and language there, but ‘Soundtrack to War’ spawned another film called ‘Rampage’, which I made on my own.

As I was doing some work in the tribal belt on landmines, I had easy access to all these places. Prior to 9/11, Al Qaeda used to take me out to dinner. I could have interviewed (Osama) Bin Laden if I wanted to.  For me the sad thing was, just as we are now seeing with IS, there started being a massive was an attack on culture. I helped the fledgling Pashtun film industry for a long time. They are the most creative people in the country, but they were being killed, the video stores were being blown up, so I felt I had to make ‘Miscreants of Taliwood’, about the war on culture imposed by the group.

You could say, in fact, ‘Snow Monkey’ started here in Amsterdam. We showed ‘Miscreants of Taliwood’ at IDFA and OXFAM came to one of the screenings and said they would give me money to go back to the region and make more films, only this time in Pakistan. It was while I was making these OXFAM films, where the filmmakers of Jalalabad came at me angry that I was working with Pakistani filmmakers, so that led me back there. The day I arrived, the city’s last video store was blown up. There, I realized these people needed a center for art and expression that wasn’t funded by them, as it would be a high-risk venue and I didn’t want them to lose their savings. Lucky for me I’m a famous artist, so I can sell a painting for $100K. With that money, I built The Yellow House.

As we would film at The Yellow House, there would be frequent disruptions from these neighborhood kids who would come around and sell ice cream, which also meant they would blow a very obnoxious horn that disrupted the shooting of the films we were making. When I decided to pay them off, I realized they were poor, had no families, and were in a very bad situation.  They grabbed me by the heart. Suddenly, I had a flashlight go off in my head and I asked them to go into business together. I asked them to sell my DVDs. The ice cream boys could sell the DVDs to parts of the community that were not allowed in the video stores or cinemas, like women. Once we did this, we started selling thousands of DVDs. The kids also made four times as much as just selling the ice cream.

How did you find the impact of this within the community? If the market for these films weren’t allowed to buy them, once you did introduce them to the films, was there a new cultural impact within the community as a whole?
Yeah, and it was nothing but good. The men liked the films too. I’ve become very culturally sensitive to this protocol. We even have a former friend of Bin Laden who would proofread the scripts. There was nothing in the films that would get anyone who made them in trouble or the women who would show them, but the movies are still extremely progressive. Usually, for example, the women characters have a University education. None of that bothers anyone, including the Taliban, however, if we were to show a woman in love and kissing a man onscreen, they would blow us up; if she was holding a man’s hand, they’d blow us up; if we showed disrespect to the Koran, we’d be triple blown up. In fact, the leader of the region’s Taliban sent his son’s to The Yellow House to study films and one of them came up to me and said we now don’t believe in everything our father believes, and we don’t think he does anymore either. So, by us working with the community like this, we could bring about change without violence.

In coming from the US, and especially given my generation, a lot of the discussion of Afghanistan is given in the context of 9/11…
…but Afghanistan had nothing to do with 9/11..

…Well, I would agree, but, unfortunately, our inept administration of the time did not. Still, though, as your relationship goes back pre 9/11, for you, what was your original interest in the region?
Well, if you look at my life, I’ve been working in war zones for over 40 years. I’ve covered Cambodia, Nicaragua, Philippines, South Africa, Rwanda, Somalia, Mozambique, Palestine, Bosnia, Northern Island…it’s my life’s work. I just won the Sydney Peace prize in recognition of this work. 

This might be too deep but the truth is, a great American art critic came to Australia once, ] where I was painting hard-edged, minimal abstract works, and he said I should come to New York. I went to New York, and it was all over the place. I then started working as a photo journalist with African American civil rights people…this was 1968, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy have been killed, making art seem incredibly removed from the real world. This was also going through the head of Philip Guston, who had been an abstractionist who also thought it was over. What I believe is, I reached a point where the art had ended itself, and there was nowhere to go for a painter in the extreme. Guston decided he already went to the limits of formalist art, but art was not addressing racism and the Vietnam War, and I started feeling the same. I felt art was over. I decided I would do art which would address real world issues and I’ve continued doing that.

With a background in fine art, photography, journalism, and documentary, how does your approach to each change. Obviously most are visual, but, for example, how do construct a painting vs framing a photograph vs constructing a narrative for a non-fiction film?
That’s a great question! One of my main ambitions is to work the limits of every medium. For example, in ‘Miscreants of Taliwood,‘ I was at the Red Mosque in Pakistan and I did some of the best visual work of my life. I was there for a moment when Pakistani intel and the CIA tricked a bunch of Mujahedin, who were convinced they could escape from the mosque they were trapped in. If you look at the footage of them leaving the mosque with their heads down and covered, it’s beautiful in itself, but I couldn’t wait to draw it, because I thought what it would be like, as a proud person with a bag over my head, pushed around with my pants falling down. I realised this was all a metaphor for the world. I don’t think anyone knows who’s leading us. I ended up painting the piece ad called it ‘The Blindfolded Leading The Blindfolded’. We are blindfolded, our leaders are blindfolded, and no one knows where we’re going. In the film it’s moving, in the photograph it looks nice, but by turning it into a painting, it becomes an icon; a single image that says it all. 

I think, though, what we’ve left out is social sculpture, which is the medium I am most proud of. This is where The Yellow House would come in. All the talent you have to do a painting and organizational skills used to make a film, go into making such a place work. 

Another problem is with photojournalists and filmmakers who go into a situation like big game hunters. I was in Rwanda, which was the worst experience of my life, and I had been there for days, seen 1000s of people killed in front of my eyes, held babies, sewed wounds together, and suddenly a whole lot of International press came in. I could hear a conversation between these two English journalists who were discussing how in two months they’d be at Victoria & Albert Hall for a concert. They had no connection with what they were doing there whatsoever.

When you are making a documentary, how do you keep yourself grounded within the medium, without straying too far into a still photography perspective, for example?
Sometimes the image at hand will just remind you of another medium. There is a scene in ‘Snow Monkeys’ were a boy is picking up Heroin needles off the ground, and it just looks like a painting. I suppose it affects my composition when I see these things, but the other thing that irritates a lot of documentary filmmakers about me is that in painting and other mediums, you are expected to experiment with the form. 

A lot of documentary filmmakers are like journalists. They want to tell a straight story and that’s it. I am a bit of a Rambo in that the way I do documentary messes with people’s perception of what a documentary should be. There is always an experimental edge. Not for the sake of experimentation, but as a means to communicate Often there are elements of shock treatment in my films, to try and keep people’s concentration. 

As this film is part of a trilogy, there is a certain connective tissue that combines it with its predecessors, but I’m interested to know your impressions on creating a stand-alone documentary narrative…
…my approach is that art is hard enough to understand without making it any more difficult. When I do a painting, I am happy to put text next to it, telling its story. It has always been my approach is to give as much information as possible. With ‘Snow Monkey’ one of the difficult parts was to make it a stand-alone film, and not repeat what we have already said in the other two. 

It’s really a matter of making film after film.  I have made so many documentary films, so I know when to open up and when to let things unfold, and so on.  With ‘Snow Monkeys’ once the ice cream boys got their cart stolen, I realized that there was another group who could be interjected into the narrative, so I also started following them. You always get great surprises! 

– Steve Rickinson



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