IDFA Press Kit – Snow Monkey
Directed by George Gittoes
Australia + Norway / 2015 / English, Pashtu, Arabic / 148 min. / International premiere
Publicity Contact IDFA:
Eager to create art with local talent in the path of the war machine, Australian artist GEORGE GITTOES recruits gangs of war-damaged children in one of Afghanistan’s most violent cities to shoot local Pashto-style films.
For almost 50 years, activist artist George Gittoes has stood on the frontlines of the world’s most brutal conflicts and borne witness to the best and the worst of humanity. Now living in Afghanistan’s remote Jalalabad province, Gittoes turns his attention to the lives of the children and outcasts of this war-torn land as IS make violent inroads into the Taliban infested area. In Snow Monkey, Gittoes paints a portrait of a Jalalabad seething with humanity, adversity and hope – focusing on three gangs of children: the Ghostbusters, persecuted Kochi boys who hawk exorcisms of bad luck and demons; the Snow Monkeys, who sell ice cream to support their families; and the Gangsters, a razor gang led by a nine-year-old antihero called Steel, terrifying to the core but still capable of experiencing aspects of the childhood seemingly taken from him. With a deeply humane vision that won him the Sydney Peace Prize, Gittoes shows us the unseen nature of Afghanistan’s politics, culture and society, up close and startlingly personal.
Screenings at IDFA
Thurs Nov 19, 16:00 @ Tuschinski 3 (press and industry screening)
Fri Nov 20, 21:45 @ Munt 10
Sat Nov 21, 17:15 @ Munt 10
Wed Nov 25, 10:30 @ Tuschinski 1
Thurs Nov 26, 18:00 @ Munt 13
Sat Nov 28, 22:00 @ EYE Cinema 1
SHOOTING SNOW MONKEY
Members of the child gangs play with masks.
Snow Monkey is the third film in George Gittoes’ trilogy – What the World Needs Now!, which started with Miscreants of Taliwood (2008) and was followed by Love City Jalalabad (2013). It is the culmination of nine years of living and filming in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Through the prism of three child gangs, Snow Monkey examines a society left broken and dysfunctional following the withdrawal of US and NATO forces in 2014. Driven by an array of extraordinary characters, SNOW MONKEY combines a vital mix of creative elements including cinema verite, dramatic reconstructions, interviews, visual pranks and snippets from Pashtun feature films. The soundtrack combines street sounds with traditional Pashtun music and recordings from some of Melbourne’s most iconic composers and performers. The distinctive look and sound that Gittoes has crafted with editor Nick Meyers and music director Hellen Rose gives Snow Monkey an astonishing visceral power.
Steel and his girlfriend Shazia
Snow Monkey was shot over a two-year period (2013 – 2015). However the film is the product of a much longer period of research and one of the astonishing creative outcomes of the Yellow House – a haven for young artists, filmmakers and actors established by Gittoes and partner Hellen Rose to foster musical and artistic expression amongst men and women in Jalalabad. The local filmmakers of Jalalabad invited Gittoes and Rose to Afghanistan after they became aware of the Australians’ work assisting the Pashtun Film Industry in Peshawar, Pakistan. The Yellow House sits on the edge of the city in which the Taliban bombed the last remaining video store and attempted to force Pashtun film art into extinction.
Collaboration with local filmmakers is key to Gittoes’ approach and the crew was made up entirely of locals. There is no film school in Jalalabad and everyone in their prolific film industry was self-taught. They had never seen a radio mike or HD cameras and knew nothing about script writing but they were confident they could make better films than their Pakistani competition. After helping to make three successful dramas Gittoes suggested making a documentary. To Afghans, documentary did not feel like “showbusiness”. There was no tradition of factual filmmaking, so they were not interested. But by incorporating elements of drama into the first two documentaries in this trilogy, and by inviting his Afghan collaborators to see the powerful audience response to the premiere of Love City Jalalabad at the Sydney Film Festival, Gittoes secured some ardent documentary converts.
Waqar has been learning on the job ever since helping shoot Miscreants of Taliwood in Pakistan and has developed into an experienced and inspired cinematographer and Amir Shah, the action hero of many Afghan dramas, is not far behind him. Neha was originally an actress in the dramas but her real ambition was to know every aspect of filmmaking. She picked up a camera to direct Simorgh, the first drama by an Afghan Pashtun woman and now runs the edit room at the Yellow House, enabling everyone to see the rushes at the end of each shoot day.
“ It takes great sensitivity to shoot kids in any situation, especially very young kids like Gul Minah, the little recycling girl, but in a fundamentalist run city with medieval values it would be insane to attempt it without first gaining universal respect from the community” says Gittoes. His years of open transparency and efforts to uplift cultural tolerance meant that there was never an awkward moment, even though much of the shooting took place in crowded city streets and parks.
In Australia, Gittoes’ vision has been realized with the support of Producer Lizzette Atkins of Unicorn Films and key collaborator, editor Nick Meyers. The film initially screened as a work in progress at Melbourne International Film Festival and Gittoes and Meyers were able to absorb the feedback from this screening into the next phase of the edit. Gittoes then returned to Jalalabad to shoot pickups between the work in progress Screening at MIFF and the film’s World Premiere at IDFA. The new scenes and startling aerials shot with a drone give extra clarity and richness to this epic story of the child gangs of Jalalabad.
Gittoes uses a minimum of two HD cameras whenever shooting; sometimes three or four. As a pioneer of laser holography, Gittoes likes to cover the action from as many perspectives as possible in one take. The principal cameras used in Snow Monkey were Sony PMW200s and created stunning visuals.
DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT: GEORGE GITTOES
George Gittoes with Steel and Shazia
Walking the streets of Jalalabad is like going back in time to when children as old as 5 worked in factories and mines and there were no services to help the abject poor, the crippled and the blind. After two years shooting Snow Monkey in Afghanistan and nine years collaborating on other films with local filmmakers, my partner Hellen Rose and I came back to the comfort to Australia to edit the film. Our subsequent return to Jalalabad reminded me that the people and kids in our film are just a sample of thousands of others who have not had the spotlight of cameras on them. I was struck by the sheer number of kids we could have focused on, and how all of them had stories as compelling as those depicted in our film.
Seeing the kids again in the context of their unfolding reality, rather than on the editing screen, was deeply moving. As I walked through the needle park a little shadow came up beside me and a tiny hand reached up for mine. It was Majid, the shoe shine boy. He is only four or five years old but is left all day, alone in a place populated with sexual perverts, drug addicts and cut throat gangsters. He is just bones and he could not make more than a dollar a day (war shortages have made food as expensive as New York). Out of these meagre earnings he pays protection money to Steel, the 11-year-old gangster boss who is a one of the main characters in our movie.
Since witnessing the carnage of the Kabul Bank bombing, Shazia, the girlfriend of Steel has been too frightened to work in her usual places around the city selling pages from the Koran. No one I asked had seen her but there was a rumour she had become a shoeshine boy and was working near the American Air base. This is a strip of sleazy joints with leering men in a lawless void where anything could happen and never be reported. We rolled our car along searching for Shazia and it seemed hopeless until I spotted a girl in the dust wearing bright greens and reds. It was Shazia! She was bare foot with some things in a little basket to sell and beamed with surprise to see us.
There are thousands of girls like Shazia and because they are uneducated and poor they are ignored. But in our film Shazia’s intelligence and courage shine. Her love story with Steel is unforgettable and makes us hope her ambition to reform this gangster boy could succeed. In the final scene of Snow Monkey we cannot help but share Steel’s dream of providing Shazia with a mansion by the river. Saving Shazia from poverty, almost, justifies the means he will use to try to do it. If as a director I can get audiences to feel for these forgotten kids in a society that has been targeted by a trillion dollar war, then I have succeeded.
George Gittoes re-enacts an execution at the Yellow House as part of a filmmaking workshop.
CREATING THE SOUNDTRACK: HELLEN ROSE
‘We have brought God down to the Earth” was what the old Sufi gestured to me, his eyes glittering like two black diamonds after we sang a spontaneous duet in the glorious garden of the Yellow House, Jalalabad. Shimmering in the golden afternoon sun, we created a harmonic that sent us into a euphoric trance and that took our secret audience with us.
Back in Australia, recording the soundtrack in the studio involved freeform composition as a group. As the musical director I would show the musicians a scene from the film and, in the case of the horrific graphic suicide bomb scene, we all virtually ran to our instruments and just let our emotions flow. Recording the music in Afghanistan was an incredible and dangerous journey for a woman, sitting in Alfridi’s hidden studio in town and recording the traditional band there with just myself, the H6 Zoom and Neha to interpret. The Laqman Players play the oldest style of music in the area that Genghis Khan would have listened to. Playing along to those recordings in the Melb Studio was incredibly challenging for us, as Persian scales and timing are complex.
The challenge I had before me was to try and help western audiences relate directly to the people they were seeing on the screen. I wanted to move away from the standard tradition of music for documentary, adhering to the use of the ethnocentric music that related to the culture represented. I’ve always thought that this amplified the ‘otherness’ of cultures ‘other than’ our own. I wanted to create a universal experience for western audiences, enabling them to connect viscerally through the music to the Afghan people and feel for them as they would feel in their own daily struggles and triumphs.
I decided to sing the songs in Pashto and interpret them into English as well as to rework them in a ‘Western’ Folk style. The Pashtun musicians and people have taken this gesture as a way of honouring their culture in a deeply profound way that recognises them truly for who they are, a people whose music, poetry and dance is as essential to them as breathing. Western audiences have been moved by the words of these ancient songs and hopefully have a deeper understanding of a very ancient culture.
Shazia and Steel
George Gittoes: Producer / director
GEORGE GITTOES is an artist who deliberately places himself in the path of the war machine. He is also an award-winning filmmaker.
Over the last 45 years he has lived, worked and born witness in countries around the world suffering appallingly destructive violent conflict, including Cambodia, Rwanda, Somalia, Nicaragua, Northern Ireland, Philippines, Bosnia, East Timor, Palestine, Congo, South Africa, Lebanon, Gaza, Russia, Mozambique, Timor, Western Sahara, Yemen, and Iraq. In these diverse locations he has set up studios to document and advocate for people caught up in the chaos; utilizing art as a positive force to declare “war on war.”
In 1969-71 he was one of the founders of the now-legendary Yellow House in Sydney, inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s vision of artistic collaboration in Provence. In 2010 he settled in the Taliban stronghold of Jalalabad, Afghanistan and established a new Yellow House — just a few blocks from where former Jalalabad resident Osama bin Laden is said to have lived while allegedly plotting the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. George’s engagement with Afghanistan is deep and longstanding, dating back 16 years.
His feature documentaries have been broadcast and screened at festivals throughout the world including; Miscreants of Taliwood (2009), made in Pakistan and screened by SBS, IDFA and at Telluride; Rampage, shot in Miami and screened at Berlin Film Festival where it was nominated for a Golden Hugo Best Documentary and subsequently released theatrically in the UK and Australia. The Soundtrack to War, his feature documentary shot in 2004/04 in Iraq screened on ABC and several scenes were also included in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Prior to Snow Monkey, his most recent feature documentary, Love City Jalalabad premiered at the Sydney Film Festival 2013 and was nominated for the Foxtel Australian Documentary Award.
Among many prizes, Gittoes has twice been awarded the Blake Prize for Religious Art and was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize in 2015.
Lizzette Atkins: Producer
Lizzette Atkins formed Unicorn Films as sole director in 2012. Atkins worked in distribution, acquisitions and exhibition for over 15 years before setting up Circe Films with Beth Frey in 2003, where she produced over 25 dramas, documentaries and documentary series for television and cinema, winning many local and international awards.
Atkins’ feature drama credits include Sue Brooks’ LOOKING FOR GRACE which was selected for competition in The Venice Film Festival (2015) and Toronto Platform Competition (2015), Jon Hewitt’s X, the cult reboot TURKEY SHOOT and Lawrence Johnston’s NIGHT (Toronto and IDFA). Currently in development and financing are NIGHTFLOWER by UK writer David Scinto (SEXY BEAST) an Australian/UK Co-production , Fred Schepisi’s ANDORRA, Matt Saville’s KID SNOWBALL, and Ben Hackworth’s RUINS OF LOVE. In addition Unicorn Films is producing a women’s horror anthology from Australia’s most exciting and emerging female talent.
Atkins has a history producing theatrical documentaries including Anna Bronoiwski’s Aim High In Creation (2014) which screened at major festivals around the world, including IDFA as well as the
Greek/Australian co-production A Family Affair (2014). Unicorn Films’ current documentary slate includes Snow Monkey (George Gittoes), Winter At Westbeth (Rohan Spong) and Mother With a Gun (Jeff Daniels). In development is a 2 part series Israel at 70 and a feature documentary My Mother’s Lost Children both with award winning filmmaker Danny Ben Moshe.
Nick Meyers: Editor
Nick Meyers is one of Australia’s most respected film editors. His most recent films include The Rocket (winner First Feature Berlin Film Festival 2013), Balibo (Winner AFI Best Editing), The Boys (IF Award for Best Editing), The Bank (Best Editing IF Award & FCCA Award), Mrs Carey’s Concert (Winner 2 AACTA Awards, nominated for Best Editing in a Documentary) and Sleeping Beauty.
Meyers and Gittoes have a strong history of working together beginning in 2006 working on the award winning Documentary Rampage, (nominated for a Golden Hugo Award), Miscreants of Taliwood 2009 and Love City Jalalabad 2013.
Waqar Alam: Cinematographer
Waqar Alam has been employed by filmmaker George Gittoes on his documentaries, The Miscreants of Taliwood (shot in Pakistan) and Love City Jalalabad (shot in Afghanistan) both as second camera and assistant editor. He has also worked with George on 6 dramas made in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Waqar is a proficient cinematographer and stills cameraman. He currently resides in Australia and is completing a Business Studies degree at UNSW. Waqar is a fluent English speaker and speaks several languages native to the Khyber Pakhtun-Khwa region. He has a tertiary degree in accounting and languages.
Hellen Rose: Music director + lead vocalist
From her early years studying acting at the Victorian College of the Arts and during a long career as a singer, Hellen became interested in the power of music to express and speak a language that unites all cultures. She has worked with bands such as the Beasts of Bourbon and X, moving from the Melbourne and Sydney Punk and Rock and Roll music scene to the freestyle Jazz and Noise, working with musicians such as Louis Burdett, Martin NG, Jamie Feilding and John Murphy.
Gul Minah, the recycling girl
Production Country: Australia / Norway
Language: English / Pashtu / Arabic
Running Time: 148 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85
Frame Rate: 24 fps
Sound Ratio: 5.1
Shot on: Sony PMW200
Writer/ Director George Gittoes
Producers Lizzette Atkins and George Gittoes
Production Companies Unicorn Films, Gittoes Films, Piraya Film AS
In Association with Screen Australia and Fritt Ord
Executive Producers Torstein Grude, Bjarte Mørner Tveit
Cinematographers Waqar Alam, Amir Shah Talash, George Gittoes
Editor Nick Meyers
Associate Editor Kenny Ang
Sound Mixer David White
Sound Editor Serge Stanley
Music by Hellen Rose, Hugo Race, Mick Harvey, Daniel Tucerri,
Brian Hooper, Kim Salmon, Anna McInerney, Julitha Ryan
Photos by Waqar Alam, © Gittoes Films
© 2015 Unicorn Films Pty Ltd, Gittoes Films Pty Ltd and Screen Australia