A Documentary film by George Gittoes, (Australia) 2.28mins
Please go to my review, below the picture…….
Snow Monkey (2015) a documentary film, directed by George Gittoes
I sat down this morning to have a look at the opening scenes of this documentary, but intending to watch it later in the evening, since the film is two and a half hours long. But, let me tell you, this is compulsive viewing, the time passes in a flash, and I couldn’t tear myself away. My plans for the morning were forgotten. This street level expose of what it’s like to live and struggle in the streets of Jalalabad, Afghanistan is a high-octane and fearless piece of cinema, not to be missed. If you are someone who still thinks that documentary films are dry and boring, forget that immediately. In spite of the tragic circumstances that it is showing us, it is unexpectedly enjoyable, and that is its brilliance.
The history of the Australian artist George Gittoes, and how he has come to this place, can be read online in other resources.
George’s relationship with his friends and neighbours in Jalalabad is one of warmth and mutual respect. His utterly non-judgmental way of relating to everyone, has brought him respect from even a local Taliban leader and the local authorities, who know that he helps people. He and his partner Hellen Rose, have established “The Yellow House” – a sort of headquarters for their artistic activities, and it appears to function as a drop-in centre too, for young people with more problems than usual.
Yes, this is Afghanistan and life is one big problem for almost everyone. But George concentrates on finding ways to assist the young children of the poor. He does what he can for these brave and tough children, (one of whom should be in kindergarten) working on the streets, to find money for their families. He finds ways to make their chosen enterprises work better for them all.
Some recycle rubbish, and there’s a group of boys who sell ice-blocks, who are frequently being picked on and robbed by another gang of petty criminal boys their own age. The leader of that latter group, is nick-named “Steel” and he’s one tough customer with razor blades between his teeth, like a Hong Kong pick-pocket. But as the film goes on, George gets close to him, and we begin to see what George is seeing… a very bright and brave kid, using his talents to live, but who has developed a merciless side, when it comes to robbing those weaker than himself. He says he despises the kids who cry when he robs them. Every other kid on the street is weaker than “Steel”. Much older men, including the drug addicts in the park, all speak of him with respect and some fear, although some are more than twice his age.
“Snow Monkey” also shows us the glorious humanity of people everywhere is strong, despite everything. Even “Steel” who seems to be hardened to the point of definitely deserving his nick-name, is a teenager in love with another young street-girl, who loves him back. “Snow Monkey” shows us the respect between the children, their fathers, (we never see any mothers, although some are reportedly rather cruel, beating and driving at least one of the children to find more money.) We are blind-sided by twice seeing a Taliban headman who seems to be very intelligent, respectful and considerate, at least towards George Gittoes! Jalalabad is under Taliban rule during filming.
George may or may not have seen Joshua Oppenheimer’s ground-breaking documentary film, “The Act of Killing”, however he is using the same idea that Joshua used. He engages the various street children in making his documentary film, and also in making their own film based on the style of local Afghan gangster films. This is a sure-fire way to engage teenagers, and they are thrilled to have the chance to learn how to use the camera, and even show some acting talent too. When they finally see themselves in the finished DVD of their home-movie their delight knows no bounds. There is a huge street poster, for their film, which enhances their street-cred immensely.
Also working to superb effect in George’s finished documentary film, “Snow Monkey” are the shots of the other posters for the Afghan gangster films, on which the children’s own movie is based.
“Snow Monkey’s” story-telling about each young worker or gangster in Jalalabad, and events in their daily lives, is also punctuated by shots of various types of flying machines passing overhead – planes, helicopters, drones.
My special congratulations to the editor, Nick Meyers and his assistant Keny Ang, who have done a superb job, assembling what might well have been a huge amount of somewhat confusing footage. The final result flows superbly, and George and his co-cinematographers have captured some powerful and moving images.
But the lingering feeling is that people are the same everywhere. They value and long for the same things. Family, food and water, shelter, safety, education, and a way to earn enough money to have this – a decent standard of living. These are basic human rights. But in this unjust world, some have it all – some don’t have any of it, or only some of it.
This documentary will tell you more about Afghanistan, in 2hrs 30 minutes, than has ever been communicated to us by our somewhat biased and often cowardly media, (or do I mean cowardly TV viewers?) When I say that, I am referring to the images of the utter carnage outside the Bank of Kabul, Jalalabad, after a bombing attack by ISIS. There are body parts, blood and horror, the like of which would not be shown on our evening news from SBS or the ABC. And to make sure we’ve seen the truth, the shot comes up twice and is held long enough to make it impossible to look away. Friends and family members of the protagonists in George’s film have died. Even the Taliban leader condemns this vicious attack on innocent citizens.
Another moving moment that actually had tears running down my face, was the day the brightest of George’s teenage Afghan comrades who had completed their crash-course at “The Yellow House” with a young volunteer school-teacher, donned their spotless school uniforms, and exercise books in hand went to the local school. George and the teacher convinced the principal to allow them to do a test to prove that they were to a standard enabling them to join up with the class, mid-term.
The hope and joy on the faces of those young boys will stay with me forever. For the first time in their young lives, the clouds have parted, and they can hope and dream of a better future. It is so heartbreaking and infuriating to think how many bright young minds in this war-torn, poverty stricken world, never have a chance to enjoy the inside of a classroom.
“The Yellow House” was the name of an artists’ communal house in Sydney, back in the Seventies, where the young George Gittoes was a frequent visitor. Back then, older artists helped the young George, and now he is doing the same, and he has uncompromisingly chosen to do it in a place where he’s putting his own life at risk.
“Snow Monkey” is the nickname of a gang of children, which they made up for themselves. But most of all “Snow Monkey” is a documentary film that you must see. We, who live in a safe and comfortable country, (Australia) one which has participated in war in Afghanistan, owe it to the people of that unfortunate country to witness their plight.
(For people in Australia, the film is currently on SBS on Demand, and it is nominated in the Best documentary category at the tenth Asia Pacific Screen Awards, (24 November 2016) in Brisbane.)
Writer: Cynthia Webb
(Copyright, November 2016)