An artist, writer, filmmaker, puppeteer and activist, George Gittoes has spent his life travelling to war zones and documenting the horrors- and the wonders- he has seen along the way. In his 66th year, he’s not slowing down, heading shortly to the ganglands of Miami to document life on the frontline in America’s most dangerous city, and from there, back to Jalalabad, Afghanistan, where he founded- and runs- The Yellow House, a beacon of art and creativity in a city ravaged by decades of war and Taliban rule.
You can read his autobiography- Blood Mystic- which is out now and if you’re not familiar with his work, SBS is running a season of his films throughout November. He spoke candidly with The Guide about art, life, politics and war.
Your films are all set in different conflict zones with different characters and ideas but they all have a common theme.
My films are about poets and musicians and filmmakers- artists- struggling to create amidst the destruction of war. That’s what I’m interested in.
Whether it’s female poet revolutionaries in Nicaragua (as in Bullets of the Poets) or US soldiers and Iraqi’s finding salvation through music as in Soundtrack to War, I’m always interested in how art is created in conflict and how it becomes a salvation to those looking to rebuild. Miscreants was about actors and filmmakers trying to make films while the Pakistani Taliban breathe down their necks. Love City: Jalalabad is all about creating the Yellow House, a place of culture and artistic expression in a city torn apart by war. Finally, Snow Monkey is about gang life in Jalalabad and how artistic expression- in this case filmmaking- gave so many people without hope something to hold onto and look forward to a better life and future.
You manage to get yourself into some pretty hairy situations with some dangerous characters. How do you get access? How do you gain their trust?
Wherever I go I’m loved by that community and I feel completely relaxed. I grew up in Rockdale in Sydney and there were only two families- mine and one other- with Caucasian backgrounds. In the 1960’s, Rockdale was like Australia’s Ellis Island: it absorbed all the migrants: it was refugees from Italy and Croatia and Russia and everywhere in the world and then later refugees from the Vietnam War. I’d go and have meals with all these kids and their families and hear their stories. So that’s how far it goes back. I couldn’t have grown up in a more multicultural community than Villiers street, Rockdale, and it has taught me to work with different cultures and to have humility.
When I made Snow Monkey, Steel- the little street kid in the film- the first thing he did was grab my fist and he could see that I’d been a fighter, my knuckles were spread because my grandfather used to make me fight. Immediately he picked that up and that meant that he trusted me. He knew instantly that I wasn’t some wanker from Australia with a movie camera from a private school who had gotten a grant to make a movie about street kids. And it happens everywhere I go.
When I got the Sydney Peace Prize last year I went out to Cabramatta High School where 90% of the kids have English as a 2nd language. And they lined up to meet me in their national dress, and there’d be a kid from Rwanda and I’d say “I love Kigali” and the two little Rwandan girls would start to cry and say they’d never heard anyone say how much they love Rwanda. And the same would go for the Somalis and the Cambodians and the Iraqis and it turned out that with every migrant refugee group, I’d worked in their country and I knew why they were there and I knew the war and the disruption that had brought them there.
Talk me through your film-making process… as a documentarian do you go in with a fixed idea or do you start filming and let the story find you?
No I never go in with a fixed idea which is why I can never get funding for my films! Commissioning editors think it’s too risky- they won’t trust a filmmaker to improvise with reality, even when they have the kind of track record of success that I have. I know where I’m going but I never really know what film I’m going to make.
With Snow Monkey it was finding gangs living off the streets of Jalalabad and capturing their lives as unfolding stories and watching how they either clashed or collaborated. There were the “Snow Monkeys”, who sell ice creams from insulated carts on wheels, the “Ghostbusters” who are indigenous Kuchi and tell you they’ll exorcise bad spirits and bad luck and there were the real Gangsters, who extort money from whoever they can by threatening them with guns or razor blades or AIDS infected syringes.
I find the story but I don’t know what I’ll see when I start and it’s like a combination of portrait painting with a movie camera and story telling. In Snow Monkey, the biggest surprise was when the gang leader revealed he had a girlfriend and I found myself documenting this beautiful love story involving a character who had seemed like nothing but a heartless monster. I’d never have been able to write that into the kind of treatment a network would need but it became the best part of the film.
For me it’s about bringing all the elements and characters together and then letting it play out, a bit like a sporting event where no one knows who’ll win or what the final score will be.
Can you tell me a little more about making films in a place like Jalalabad- how dangerous is it? How do the Taliban respond to you?
In Jalalabad we were visited by Moulana Huqqani- the leader of the region’s Taliban- and it was actually a huge relief. He gave the Yellow House his blessing and he supports the work we’re doing- he even allowed his sons to attend filmmaking workshops with us. He’s a highly educated and intelligent man who believes in women’s rights and thinks they should be better represented in government.
There’s no doubt that some Taliban are even more brutal than IS but with most Afghan Taliban leaders that hasn’t been my experience. In Afghanistan the Taliban brought law and order back to a country which had fallen into chaos and corruption after the retreat of the Russians. I was in Afghanistan at the time- years ago, pre 9/11- and there was incredibly progressive work going on even then. The Afghan Taliban had nothing to do with Bin Laden and 9/11 yet it was Afghanistan that was punished not its real sponsors: Saudi Arabia.
I.S. is a much greater threat to our Yellow House and the work we are doing than the Taliban- we’re actually relying more on the local Taliban protecting us than we are the police or the army. The Pakistani Taliban, however, are completely different- which isn’t something a lot of people know. They’re backed by the Pakistani Intelligence agency, ISI, and they’ve threatened my partner and I a number of times, saying they’re going to kidnap and kill us, because my films have exposed them as the monsters they are. Snow Monkey details just how they kidnap children before training them up and sending them to be suicide bombers. It is a huge disservice to not separate the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban- they should have different names and be treated in totally different ways.
You said once that images don’t change government policies… do you think that is changing with social media when there is the chance for a picture to be taken and go viral in an instant, like the photo of the Syrian baby washed ashore or the young boy in the ambulance in Aleppo… if a photo now has the power to instantly affect and bombard us, can’t that force us to petition our governments for change?
You can do whatever you do, you can take the most amazing portrait ever but that’s not going to attract a grant from the government to keep working and it’s not going to affect their policy. They’re not going to turn around say “well we’re not going to bomb Aleppo because of what George Gittoes has done!”
It’s frustrating. The only way I can stop myself going mad is doing things like the Yellow House where I can physically see that we’re bringing about positive change to these communities. I believe in it. I say in my book that I’m going into the frontline with brushes and pens but not guns and that’s because I believe so deeply in freedom of expression and creativity. Those photos you mentioned, they are making a difference but that’s why we’re seeing Brexit and the rise of people like Trump. The public everywhere is panicked and completely disillusioned with what the politicians are serving up and no one is doing anything to reassure them that it’ll ever get better- so they’re giving in to fear.
Speaking of Trump… You’ve spent a lot of time in the US and you’re going back shortly. Can I ask your thoughts on the election?
All my friends in the US- particularly in the African American communities are ashamed and horrified. They dislike Hillary and Trump equally. They feel incredibly disenfranchised, like neither candidate really knows what is going on or is listening. I’m specifically flying there on the 4th of November so I can film the few black people who may come out to vote but also the disillusionment that’s going on with the actual election- that’ll be part of my film.
Have you ever thought “I’ve gone too far?”/What’s the most dangerous situation you’ve ever found yourself in?
I’ve been close to being killed so many times it’s hard to pick just one instance. Usually when you’re faced with death there’s not much time to think about it because you need a spontaneous reaction to stay alive. But if you’re captured or cornered fear is sometimes helpful because you get yourself into a state of heightened awareness in order to plan your escape. Everywhere I go is usually dangerous… I am preparing to shoot Brown Sub, the sequel to Rampage, back in the ganglands of the Miami Projects. More people are being shot there than in Baghdad at the height of the Iraq war- as the only white face in a black war zone, I’ll stand out. There’s a pretty high chance I could be killed but I’m still going, with no hesitation. Miami is much riskier than Jalalabad, even when the Pakistani Taliban are sending me death threats. But in answer to your question, the most dangerous situation I have faced is never in the past but always the next one I am about to step into. My greatest fear when I was younger was that I’d get too comfortable to continue the kind of work I do best or that I’d lose my nerve, so it’s great at 66 to still be in the zone.
Do you think art has a responsibility to be politically or socially conscious?
Throughout my career as an artist in Australia I’ve been told political content doesn’t belong in art. This is particularly the case in Sydney. There’s no shortage of artists doing what I call “flat wall furniture”, that is, paintings that match the lounge and rugs, but I think real art has always been about what it is to be human, it’s food for the soul. True artists are meaning providers and not decorators.
How do you handle the weight of so many people’s legacies? Do you ever feel guilty when you see people die and you go on to paint them or do you see it as a privilege of sorts or a duty?
My most profound experience of doing a portrait was of a young Rwandan woman named Immacule whose face and head had been chopped into with a machete. There was nothing I could do for her- I went and asked the one doctor in town if I could have something for her pain but he said she was going to die- her head wounds were too deep and the conditions too filthy and the town’s meagre medical facilities weren’t capable of helping her. It is hard when surrounded by human suffering to just sit and draw- if feels wrong- but the doctor suggested I do it anyway- sit with her and draw her so she wasn’t alone. As I started drawing she asked me why I was doing it and I replied “I want the world to see what has been done to you.” From that moment it became a collaboration, with Immacule struggling to cling on to life and consciousness until I had finished. It was a joint work and she was satisfied with the drawing: she wasn’t going to be another body in a mass grave with her life unrecorded or unknown. I went on to paint a dozen paintings of Immacule and they have been exhibited all over the world, so I fulfilled my promise, she hasn’t been forgotten.
You once said that Australia had never produced a great painter. What do you think makes a great painter? Why hasn’t Australia produced one?
A history of Australian art is a history of Johnny One Notes- they hit on a formula and then these artists become frightened to change their style. A dealer gets in their ears and tells them to paint jockeys and dogs and fruit or tells them never to paint green because people like red. This is why I’ve never really worked with dealers. If you look at the art in my book it could be by 100 artists because I’ve never stuck to one style and if I had a dealer breathing down my neck that would be different. The dealer system in Australia is so strong- if a dealer says “I can’t put that on my wall” then it doesn’t get made. Australian artists discredit themselves by thinking they have to meet the requirements of art dealers. If Australia does produce a great artist it’ll be one who has only paid attention to their own inner directive.
But at the same time, there’s no government funding or no initiatives to encourage creativity. Art has the power to move people’s emotions, making them less willing to accept boring lives in little boxes but it’s easier for governments to throw money at defense projects like the 50 billion dollar submarines in South Australia than justify keeping Sydney College of the Arts open. Governments add to the idea that artists are bludgers who don’t contribute anything useful. They think that if they fund the arts they’ll be seen as soft in the head. But as a result we’re not making anything anymore. How can we be a smart country when we’re not making anything? How can we be a happy country when we’re not making anything? Making things brings joy and satisfaction, something that can not be bought.
Tell me about painting the Dalai Lama?
I painted him on his day off in between a heavy schedule of public talks and rituals. When he was totally relaxed I asked him why he wanted me to paint his portrait and he explained that “The painting of Dalai Lamas is very formal and has been for thousands of years. You will paint me in a new way and that is how I want to be seen, in a new way, but I chose you also because your life work in war zones is about compassion and I am about compassion.”
I called my portrait ‘Compassion’. I asked him if he was a mystic and he said no, he’d never had a mystical experience but he believed in mystics and had many of them working for him. Then he sneezed and laughed, telling me that Buddhists believed that sneezing was a moment of non-existence- the ultimate state for Buddhists. So I did a second portrait called ‘The Sneeze’. Of the two I like it best.
Finally, tell me a bit about your new book, Blood Mystic. It’s not a typical “art book”, is it?
I consume art books, especially artist biographies as often as I can find them. The funny thing about my book, however, is that there’s no mention of exhibitions or even the development of my way of painting. Most Artist books highlight exhibits and agonize over an artists’ ‘brave’ decision to defy accepted painting traditions and suffer the consequences of not being accepted of understood. My book doesn’t have any of that. I have a Matisse biography which spends an entire chapter talking about how he fretted about using flat colour without tonal modelling! At the Van Gogh Museum they have a publication in a few volumes which connects all of his paintings and drawings to his letters so his art becomes an illustration of his life and mental states. Blood Mystic is a bit more like that with the paintings, drawings, photos and films becoming relics and illustrations of my journey.
I see the book as being closer to a graphic novel than a typical memoir or auto biography. I am encouraging the publishers to see if comic stores like Forbidden Planet are interested in stocking it. In any case, I want the book to be an inspiration to younger artists that your life doesn’t have to be about getting a painting in the Archibald and getting in with a dealer and producing a show every twelve months. To me that idea went out with the dinosaurs. Artists these days can work across every multimedia- I work in film, writing, photography, puppets, performance art across the board. I’m 66 years old and I’m the happiest 66-year-old you’re ever likely to find: I’ve had a very successful and fulfilling life.
George Gittoes latest film Snow Monkey premieres on SBS on Sunday 6th November at 10.45.
His previous films, Soundtrack to War, Rampage, The Miscreants and Love City: Jalalabad air November 7-10 on SBS2.
Blood Mystic by George Gittoes is out Tuesday 25 October, RRP $49.99, Macmillan Australia