IDFA ’15: George Gittoes returns with “Snow Monkey”

Realscreen catches up with Snow Monkey director George Gittoes to discuss his experiences while filming a documentary about street children in war-torn Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
November 25, 2015

Snow Monkey is Australian filmmaker and artist George Gittoes’ (pictured, right) latest foray into tracking the tribulations and triumphs within war-torn Afghanistan.

The 148-minute film, which was recently acquired by Tel Aviv-based distributor Cinephil, shadows the towering Australian as he persuades Jalalabad’s willing street gangs of children to pick up camera equipment in place of weapons as the Islamic State violently makes headway into the Taliban-heavy area.

australian filmmaker george gittoes.

Australian filmmaker George Gittoes.

The documentary – which held its work-in-progress world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) in August – focuses its lens on three sets of child-run street gangs. They include the Snow Monkeys, ice cream vendors supporting their families, and the victimized Kochi Ghostbusters, who sell smoke to exorcise demons, to the Gangsters, a threatening razor clique led by nine-year-old Steel.

Through the Yellow House Artist Collective, which was founded by Gittoes and partner Hellen Rose in 2011 and serves as both independent film school and walled-off sanctuary, the Sydney-born director-producer, and recent winner of the Sydney Peace Prize, attempts to provide these underprivileged children with a better future by starring in, filming and producing local Pashto-language films.

The film follows 2009′s Miscreants of Taliwood, which tackled the Pakistani film and travel board and the threat from the Taliban; and Gittoes’ 2013 social change doc Love City, Jalalabad, about his founding of the art center, the Yellow House Jalalabad.

Realscreen spoke with Gittoes from his home in Sydney, Australia to discuss the challenges of living and filming under the constant threat of violence ahead of Snow Monkey’s international premiere at IDFA on November 20. The film has additional screenings on November 26 and 28.

What changes did you make to the film following the MIFF premiere?

We discovered that there were a few confusing areas in the film. It’s very hard to explain the Taliban. There’s the bad Taliban and the “better” Taliban, and there’s ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant]. We added that scene with Maulvi Abdul Zahir Haqqani saying that they didn’t do the bombing at the Kabul bank, but it needed to be cleared up. The other thing was that the film didn’t properly explain us [Gittoes and partner Hellen Rose] and the Yellow House. We were trying to downplay our role but we found people were confused by not knowing what we do, so we’ve added that and it’s improved the film.

What were the biggest production challenges you faced when filming Snow Monkey?

The thing that we’re most proud of was the dialogue between Steel and the Kochi boy Dilbur, where they’re having that dialogue about, “I’ll cut your head off and throw you in the river.” Those are the hardest things to get because they’re true cinéma vérité and it’s such a delicate situation. They have to become unaware of you otherwise that [conversation] doesn’t happen.

In terms of our danger, the things that have happened – like the attack on the police station or Kabul Bank – these things come out of the blue. But if you’re living [in a war zone], you can’t maintain fear every second of your life. We’ve had constant death threats by the Pakistani Taliban saying that we’re going to be beheaded because we’ve done so much [to help Afghans].

How do you deal with those death threats?

I usually track them back to their source – they’re usually generated by the IS or the Pakistani Taliban – and we galvanize the local community around us. Basically, our security is the community. It’s not weapons or security guards.

What drew you to Afghan children-run street gangs?

If you look at all of my art, you’ll find that I’ve covered many wars and my concern’s always been the innocent children who are victims of those wars. The sad thing for me is that when you get to know how wonderful these children are and you realize there are thousands and thousands more that you can’t help. When you make a film like this and you get to know them and realize their hopes and ambitions, you really want to help all of the kids.

Was that one of the messages you were trying to get across in Snow Monkey, that these are real people?

Absolutely. The original concept was to show the kind of children that have been used as human guiding systems for bombs and how inhuman this is, and how rich and wonderful these kids really are. We never expected that bombing to happen [at Kabul Bank]. If I succeed in making you care about these kids, then that’s the whole purpose of this film.

Snow Monkey is a plea to see that creative work and communication skills are much more productive than the trillions of dollars that are spent on the military.Teaching [Snow Monkey member] Zabi how to use a camera is much more effective than teaching a kid of a similar age to use a gun.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.