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Inside the Film School for Women and Children in War-Torn Afghanistan

George Gittoes's new documentary, 'Snow Monkey,' is like 'The Act of Killing' meets 'The Wolfpack' meets 'Lawrence of Arabia'—with the Taliban and ISIS thrown in.

All photos from 'Snow Monkey,' courtesy of Gittoes Films

With his long, gray beard and Pashtun dress, artist and filmmaker George Gittoes seems to maneuver the streets of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, like a local—that is until he speaks in his booming Australian accent. In his latest documentary Snow Monkey, we follow the Sydney native as he recruits street kids to come and learn filmmaking skills at the Yellow House Jalalabad, the name he's given the artist collective and independent film school he started with his partner Hellen Rose back in 2011. The kids that Gittoes befriends aren't even teenagers, but they already have jobs to support their families. They're excited about making movies, and in turn, the locals are eager to buy DVDs of the films they make with Gittoes's help. Even the Taliban are supportive. Then the Islamic State comes to town, and things get ugly in a hurry.

The gonzo documentary has the violence and B-movie tropes of The Act of Killing; the peace-and-love spirit of John and Yoko's Bed-Ins; and the meaningful-yet-not-corny community engagement of Jaimie Warren's social-practice art. The title Snow Monkey comes from the name the little gang of ice-cream boys give themselves. These boys roam the streets selling frozen treats out of their little carts, and they're everywhere like the monkeys in the city, they explain.

Watch an exclusive clip from 'Snow Monkey':

Courtesy of Gittoes Films

There's other little gangs in the film, too. The Ghostbusters are a group of Kochi children—the Kochi are Nomadic people in Afghanistan, kind of like the Roma in Europe. These kids make their money stopping cars at traffic intersections and offering to ward off evil spirits with their canisters of fragrant smoke. And then there's a gang of kids who hang around the park where the older gangsters sell opium. These ten and 12-year-olds spend their days smoking cigarettes, playing pool, and brandishing razor blades that they use to extort money from the other children, including the tiniest recycling kids as young as three and five who drag around sacks of cans as big as them.

Gittoes approaches even the bleakest scenarios with a warm enthusiasm. When I spoke to him, he punctuated many sentences with my name, a small but intimate gesture. And in the documentary you see the same gracious and affable manner on display. He's always hugging everyone hello and goodbye. He's always saying, "Fantastic!" to the children's suggestions. Although Gittoes is a total hippie, he's not naive. Wrapped up in the art-making that he's encouraging is the idea that there's an inherent value to radical self-expression, as is his understanding of media as an ideological tool. And there's an even more practical element to the film school: These kids are learning a trade that can hopefully provide them with a brighter future.

Gittoes has made two other documentaries in similar style to Snow Monkey. Love City (2013) is also set in Jalalabad and tracks the founding of the Yellow House, while Miscreants of Taliwood (2009) finds Gittoes at the heart of a culture war in Pakistan, getting involved in the local Pashto tele films at the same time as the Taliban are cracking down on the entertainment industry. In all of these films, Gittoes adopts the kitschy aesthetics of the popular Pashtun-language cinema, most notably abrupt cuts to explosions and neo-gothic fonts. And in Snow Monkey, there are other local textures woven in. Gittoes's partner Rose directed the soundtrack with local musicians, many of whom had never been recorded before.

I caught up with Gittoes over Skype when he was recently back from Jalalabad in Australia getting the final cut of Snow Monkey ready for its November 20 international premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA) in Amsterdam.

VICE: How much time had you spent in the Middle East before you started making these films?
George Gittoes: Well, it's been a lifetime, Whitney. I worked in Somalia and Palestine and Iraq. I shot a lot of footage for the film Fahrenheit 9/11 in Iraq. Being in Afghanistan goes back to the 90s, when I did a job for an international campaign to ban land mines. I went in and helped create a mine-awareness program that could go out to villages to let women and children working in the field know the dangers. I got to know the Taliban and the country fairly well prior to 9/11, so I have a way different view of Afghanistan from most people. I don't see the Taliban as the demons that they are normally painted as.

Zabi said, 'I've got to become a documentary filmmaker like you. The world needs to know about the terrible things these people are doing and what I've seen.'

A lot of documentaries are interested in just representing people and places, but you are interested in how people represent themselves and how they create their own myths. Are you interested in enacting something in the world with your storytelling?
The greatest example of that in our film is little Zabi. He was just one of these ice-cream sellers. We brought him in along with the other ice-cream sellers to help sell our DVDs, but very quickly those boys saw what we were doing and wanted to make their own movies. They really pushed themselves. The day of that terrible massacre, Zabi was out filming. He was making a little film about the rickshaw drivers—an exercise I'd given him. Then that terrible bombing happened only a few hundred meters away. So here is this 13-year-old kid with a camera, and he got the most dramatic footage in our movie. And then he says, "I really want to learn how to use the cameras not just to make pictures but to show the world what's happening here."

And that story is ongoing. When we were away, Zabi was captured by IS and was forced to carry guns for them. He had to carry guns three times up to the mountains. The IS know that if the predator drones and the helicopters see anyone carrying guns, they'll assume it's Taliban and IS and shoot them. So they get big boys like Zabi to carry the guns, and then the boys get killed. So Zabi did three of these very dangerous trips, and then when he heard we were back, he decided to make a very dangerous escape. For a kid to escape IS is a big thing.

One of the most beautiful moments of my life was sitting in the kitchen of the Yellow House and just suddenly seeing him. We all thought maybe Zabi was dead, and seeing him walk past the window, he was so excited to know he was alive and we were there that he couldn't talk to begin with. He was just gasping and then immediately when he started talking, he said, "I've got to become a documentary filmmaker like you. The world needs to know about the terrible things these people are doing and what I've seen." He said, "I'm more keen now more than ever to become a filmmaker."

Sharia and Steel in 'Snow Monkey'

The whole film is about how artists and communicators can do a lot more to bring about peace and understanding than you can ever do at the point of a gun.

Even before the Islamic State moves in, it's hard not to notice just how poor Jalalabad is.
You know, whatever is going on, the American people are being duped. A couple of trillion dollars are being spent there and [there's not much to show for it]. In Jalalabad, we haven't seen any assistance for school or jobs. The only jobs that have been created are they've trained the Afghan army, but they've created an army that is too big for a poor country with no exports or industries to pay all of those soldiers. So naturally, like in Iraq, they are switching over to the Taliban and IS, and they've taken their guns and equipment with them.

I don't know what kind of people are on top of decision-making with the American war machine, but they're either not very smart or their interests are not the same as what the rest of humanity would imagine they should be. In Jalalabad, where we fund the Yellow House, I fund everything with the sale of my own art because I am a very well-known artist. And we're the only place providing an art school, a film school, and even now, we're doing a kind of an entry school for the street kids to get into normal government school because the school can't accept kids that are 13 and 14 and completely illiterate. We can't see anything else going on in that city, and yet trillions of dollars are being spent. The whole film is about how artists and communicators can do a lot more to bring about peace and understanding than you can ever do at the point of a gun.

Cast with 'Snow Monkey' director George Gittoes

Do you see the art you are encouraging as having a practical value?
I do, particularly for the women we are working with. My partner Hellen started the women's workshops, and we have women making their own radio programs and writing their own television dramas. The amount of change that is needed in that society is huge. These women are never allowed out of the house. Their husbands are telling them that they shouldn't let their daughters go to school. And then in the films that women are making at the Yellow House [which local people in Jalalabad watch], all the female characters go to school and to university.

We made [Snow Monkey] for an audience of people like yourself in the wider world to see what we are doing, but the most important work for us really is training people there to make their own movies and to change that society from within.

There is nothing wrong with artists going to a place like Jalalabad and helping any more than a physician going there with Doctors Without Borders.

I think it's interesting, too, the way art and the idea of the artist kind of circulates in your films. You have idea of art as radical self-expression, but there's sometimes tension with how other characters in your films see what they are doing. In Miscreants, for example, some of the actresses don't see working in movies as self-expression but as desperation. Has your idea of an artist changed?
I haven't changed. The position of women in Pashtun societies is just straight-up terrible. Actresses are princesses in our culture. And the most famous actress in that culture is running the risk of being killed and seen as a prostitute.

Miscreants was a long time ago. And over that period of time, everyone has had their self-esteem changed. The main teacher at the Yellow House is Neha Ali Khan, who was an actress in those movies. She had all that low self-esteem that we see in Miscreants, but she turned to me one day and she said, "George, I know what I want to do. I want to be an director. I want to learn everything." And now she's made films, and they've won awards. [She's credited as one of the editors on Snow Monkey.]

We brought Neha to Australia for the Sydney Film Festival, when Love City was playing there, and she didn't believe that women could have the kind of freedoms that you've got. She'd heard that women could ride bicycles in Australia and America, but she didn't believe it. She thought it was propaganda. We took her to Bondai beach with a bicycle. And she had on a pair of short shorts on and a T-shirt and she went riding this bicycle and she was the happiest person in the world.

If I told that to the women that we're teaching at our film school that story, they probably wouldn't believe me—they would probably think that's just a Westerner lying about his culture. But Neha coming back with that story, it is incredible. So we try to bring as many of the teachers from the Yellow House to Australia.

The leader of the Taliban, who is in our documentary—Molvi Abdul Zaher Haqqani—he's got 14 sons and seven daughters from two wives. And now he's letting all of them who are old enough come to the Yellow House and learn media.

Do you ever feel a conflict between promoting women's rights but perhaps importing Western values in a colonialist way?
Hellen and I are the only foreigners there. And we would have those concerns if it hadn't been for the fact that we talk independence in everything. Now the films that the students are making, we don't even see the scripts. We just help with getting the cameras and updating the equipment. We bought them a drone this last time we came. That may seem like a funny thing, but for women filmmakers who are not allowed out in the street, they are now able to get the aerials they need using the drone.

The drone is an empowerment thing, too, because it's quite hard to fly. It's like flying an airplane. And in their lives, they haven't had these opportunities to show their abilities. All a woman's friends will see her using something like a drone, which they are normally told that they are too stupid to use.

There's nothing colonialist about that. I think a lot of these inhibitions have been taught at university—you probably heard about colonialism at university. It inhibits young people from wanting to go and do things like we are doing. There is nothing wrong with artists going to a place like Jalalabad and helping any more than a physician going there with [Doctors Without Borders].

Everything we do has to be done with enormous care because if we help these women or anyone there makes films that are socially unacceptable, we could literally get them killed. So we've got to make films that abide all the current social laws in that country and yet push the boundaries. So each film is pushing the boundaries a little bit, but not enough to close the Yellow House down and get the filmmaker or actress killed. For example, we could never have a couple holding hands or kissing in a film. Now maybe in five years we could. For example, in these films, we have women going to university, but if we had them meeting a young boy in the back of a university and kissing him, we would be closed down.

We have the Taliban come in to the Yellow House and see films that we are making. And we are very aware of what goes over the line. But, for example, the leader of the Taliban, who is in our documentary—Molvi Abdul Zaher Haqqani—he's got 14 sons and seven daughters from two wives. And now he's letting all of them who are old enough come to the Yellow House and learn media. That's children of the leader of the Taliban.

All a woman's friends will see her using something like a drone, which they are normally told that they are too stupid to use. There's nothing colonialist about that.

So why on earth does let them come? What image of the Taliban do we have that's a misrepresentation?
The Afghan Taliban are a nationalist movement, and they were evolving when I was there before 9/11. They were evolving into a better culture. Molvi Abdul Zaher Haqqani, for example, knows me from back then. He is very well-educated. His latest thing is that he backed the last democratic election. He sat in the election himself. And he said, "In all future elections, I am going to fight for the representation that there be one woman candidate for every man candidate." So the Taliban themselves are evolving. And the information that is being put out about them is completely unfair.

In our film, Molvi Abdul Zaher Haqqani says that there are Taliban who are worse than IS. What he is talking about is that there are Pakistani Taliban who do really bad stuff, like with child suicide bombers and so on. But they are different from the nationalist Afghan Taliban, and yet they are all being tarred with the same brush.

When the Taliban fought America, they saw America as no different from Russia. They saw this as an invasion of their country, and the American army called them insurgents [laughs]. You can't be an insurgent unless you are coming from outside. They are fighting to protect their own villages.

The only accurate news reporting in the Western World is sports reporting. If you look at the most recent thing that happened with the American bombing in Kunduz, the Taliban had 30 or 40 guys with AK-47s, and the Afghan army backed by the Americans had tanks and jet planes and helicopters and drones. It's not a very fair fight, is it? So I would say the guys who took on that hugely overwhelming force had balls. They had real courage, but that will never be reported. If it was sports news, it would be reported: "Oh, ladies and gentlemen, we have this featherweight fighter, and he's fighting two guys as big as Mike Tyson, isn't that amazing?" But we just hear that the Taliban are coming to Kunduz and we all know that they are bad guys and this is a terrible thing.

What you're getting is incredibly imbalanced reporting. And now that IS is coming to Jalalabad, they are terrible, and the only people fighting them are the Taliban. The American forces are still fighting the Taliban, and yet the Taliban are the only people who are going to fight IS. So by weakening the Taliban, they are making it easier for IS to take over Afghanistan. Just like by destroying Saddam Hussein and his armies, they made it easier for terrorists to take over in Iraq.

In your film Miscreants, we see that the Taliban there use media as an ideological tool. And IS has their own propaganda. There's a physical war going on, but also a war of images. How do you see what you are doing fitting into that?
What we are doing is totally pro-Western world without being colonialist in that we're helping people in Jalalabad to make good positive movies that encourage peace and education. And everyone would agree that most of these problems are caused by a lack of education. So by encouraging not only girls but boys, too, to go to school and get educated, they are much less likely to be manipulated. Because it's uneducated poor people that get manipulated into carrying suicide bombs. It's very hard to imagine a person with a good education agreeing to blow themselves up to go to paradise.

A lot of IS propaganda has really been targeted at Western audiences. There's a lot of stuff that's English language. With the kids you know in Jalalabad, is there different propaganda being targeted at them?
The kids in Jalalabad know how evil and bad they are. IS's tactic in the West is to win people over to their cause by offering adventure, basically. They really are appealing to the ultimate in machismo. I've seen in Australia, boys that were listening to rap music and selling drugs, they have now switched to following IS because it's cooler. It's more dangerous; it's more sexy.

As you see in our film, the bad guys capture the kids and they kidnap them like they kidnapped Zabi. And they force them to do things for them out of traditional blackmail. In the case of Zabi, they said, "We will kill your mom and sisters unless you cooperate with us." But the difference is that all of the kids going through the Yellow House want to fight IS back through media and film and let the world know what it's like to be them and how bad these people are. The tactic of IS in Afghanistan is to rule through fear, not through propaganda. They know that there's not enough people using internet and stuff like that to get them that way.

I don't think Zabi will ever recover from being a witness to something he saw when he was with these IS guys, something that was terrible beyond belief. They heard shooting in a village, which was a village that Zabi knew, and he was forced to come down with them. They said to the people in the village, "Why were you shooting?" And they said that it was because this couple had had a baby, and it looked like they couldn't have children, they were getting old and this was their first boy child—would you like to see it? The father went and brought the child out, and IS grabbed it, one held one leg and the other held another leg and they cut it down the middle. And then they shot the father for trying to stop them. That was their tactic. Now everyone in the village is terrified of them and will do whatever they say. And poor little Zabi, I don't think he will ever get that experience out of his mind, but he managed to escape and now he wants to tell that story. He wants to make films and let people know what's happening, and he had other stories as bad as that. So we've had to counsel him and try and help him recover. And he's recovering through his art.

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Snow Monkey makes its international premiere on November 20 at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.