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.
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?
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.'
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."
Even before the Islamic State moves in, it's hard not to notice just how poor Jalalabad is.
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.
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 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.
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?
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 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.]
Do you ever feel a conflict between promoting women's rights but perhaps importing Western values in a colonialist way?
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.
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.
So why on earth does let them come? What image of the Taliban do we have that's a misrepresentation?
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.
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.
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.Follow Whitney on Twitter.Snow Monkey makes its international premiere on November 20 at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.