Snow Monkey tells the stories of Afghanistan’s feral children in the post-apocalyptic city of Jalalabad. This is a Mad Max world where a nine year old boy is so tough he calls himself Steel and runs lower level organized crime. Even the police are frightened by his underage gang who carry razor blades in their mouths and are notorious for slashing open eyes. There is a five year old girl, Gul Minah, who refers to her past as “when I was a child”. Gul Minah has probably never had a bath and feeds her three year old brother from the money she makes collecting soda cans, sold for recycling. What money is left over gets sent to her father, who is in jail for murder.
It is a shark eat shark world where the children have no protection from predators. The most entrepreneurial children are the ice-cream sellers who hawk frozen delights in a city where refrigeration is unknown. The boy sellers call themselves Snow Monkeys because they can sell snow in the summer and like monkeys they are up to many tricks. It is from them the movie gets its name.
The three ice-cream boys who are featured are: Irfan nine years, Salhudin eight years and Zabi twelve years. They epitomize the problems of Afghanistan. Irfan’s father is a drug addict causing Irfan to have to provide food for his younger brothers and sisters and suffer frequent brutal bashings when his father wants the money to feed his habit. Salhudin’s father is a crippled beggar with his legs made useless by polio when he was a child. Zabi’s father was shot in the face and blinded by shot gun pellets in a mistaken and uncompensated raid on their home, by US special forces.
The Kuchi, who are a form of Afghan gypsy, are a persecuted minority who refuse to conform to the dictates of fundamentalist Islam. In Jalalabad they live in filthy camps with no sanitation, pump water or electricity, yet they bring colour and excitement to the city. A group of Kochi boys call themselves the Ghostbusters because they hawk the exorcism of bad luck and demons, whether people want it or not. They have special seeds and leaves which they sprinkle into small cans containing live coals to make magic smoke to repel supernatural evil. An old Sufi Shaman who has taken refuge from the Taliban in the Kochi camp is willing to make them sorcerer’s apprentices and teach them more about their craft of exorcism. The Ghostbusters join the film as the third group along with the gangsters and the Snow Monkeys.
Both the Ghostbusters and the Snow Monkeys are preyed upon by the gangsters. Steel and the gangsters make their entry into the film when they steal the ice-cream carts of the Snow Monkeys and demand a hundred dollars each for their return. Instead of giving in to their demands for money the gangsters are offered parts in the movie that the Snow Monkeys have begun making with the Afghan action star Amir Shah. This does not prevent them, however, from beating and razor blade cutting one of the smallest Ghostbusters – Farouk.
After the optimism of the Snow Monkeys selling movies with their ice-creams and the Ghostbusters joining them in preparatory lessons for joining school, at the Yellow House media centre, the film enters the dark world of Steel and his gang who feel they have the right to take and extort money from all the other kids as well as stealing from the adult community. Steel is between nine and eleven years old but has the premature authority of a Godfather figure out of a classic Hollywood gangster movie. It is difficult to believe someone so small can have so much power and generate universal fear but Steel quickly demonstrates his power, both as an unnaturally fast and deadly fighter and as a mastermind at human manipulation.
All goes well with the gangsters helping to make a kids’ movie called SNOW MONKEY, directed and written by Salhudin and shot by fellow ice-cream boy, Irfan. Steel and his brother Bulldog go to an upmarket men’s wear store and choose designer clothes to make them look like successful gangsters. Steel has taken to the idea of becoming a movie star and envisioning himself as a young Al Pacino in Scarface.
Tragedy comes to burst this happy bubble when Inam, the dedicated teacher who has instructed to boys to help them pass an entry exam into school, has his father, the police chief, killed in a raid on the local police station. The battle for the police station is only a block away from the Yellow House. A walk through the shattered, bullet pocked building is a very emotional experience with Inam leading the way. Once again the dark forces seem to be winning.
Soon after this first crushing event Taliban suicide bombers make a devastating attack on the Kabul Bank killing over forty people, including many children. Our boys witness and help to film the aftermath. This experience leaves huge questions in their minds and in a state of post-traumatic stress they decide to go to the Children’s Jail where failed child suicide bombers are kept for deprogramming. They interview a former inmate bomber, who after realizing he was about to kill innocent Moslems, revealed his explosive vest and turned himself in to the Army.
In the interview the boys explore the psychology and training of suicide bombers. This is a new development, from making drama to engaging with investigative documentary making. They identify with the young suicide bombers who have been kidnapped and brainwashed and realize they could as easily have been caught in the same shoes. It becomes clear that the prevalence of poor and uneducated kids makes it easy for unscrupulous adults to abduct them and use them as disposable weapons.
After witnessing the carnage of suicide attacks the boys ask the bomber if he was shown footage of the way these explosions tear bodies apart during his training. They are horrified to be told these movies filled with torn corpses are shown to the trainees, constantly.
A theme throughout the documentary is the importance of education and real jobs for the poverty motivated children of Afghanistan, with the warning that if they are not assisted to find useful places in society they will be used to perpetuate ongoing war and corruption. Trillions have been spent on the war but little or nothing on the youth, who are being used as the next generation of terrorists and combatants.
The Taliban is not a single monolithic organization but falls into three categories – Afghan Taliban who formed the government prior to the American invasion, Pakistani Taliban who are often used by ISI (Pakistan’s version of the CIA) to discredit the Afghan Taliban, and gangsters who masquerade as Taliban to legitimize criminal enterprises like kidnapping and drug smuggling. Moulana Haqqani, who is the leader of the Afghan Taliban, is sympathetic to the plight of the children and when interviewed denies responsibility for suicide attacks and other terrorist actions. The failed suicide bomber who explains with an insider’s knowledge that such attacks are done by the Pakistani Taliban under instructions from ISI backs this up. In an interview before his death the police chief Anam makes the same distinction between the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. Since the use of children for these attacks is a central theme of the documentary it became important to explain that it is widely believed that this misuse of kids is being perpetrated by outside forces.
The film returns to the light when we discover that Steel, who up until this point has proven to be a totally sociopathic monster, is in love with a beautiful girl called Shazia. Shazia tells her story and the story of their love unfolds as the cameras follow them on a journey through their shared street life. Shazia will fight to the death for “her Steel” and wants to marry him but not until he turns away from the life of a gangster and gets educated. She wants him to become a professional, contributing to society as a doctor or engineer. She does, however, back him up as he takes her on his rounds of extorting money from those who pay for his protection.
The Snow Monkeys and the Ghostbusters have, in the meantime, passed their entry exams for school and finished their first movie. They watch from their ice-cream carts as giant billboards advertising the movie go up all around Jalalabad. It is proof they can succeed and be “someone”. Already they have risen from gutter trash, seen by prosperous citizens as a nuisance, to the status of young celebrities through the magic of film and the crew of the Yellow House believing in them.
While the billboards go up Steel takes Shazia for a walk along the banks of the Kabul River. They wash and splash each other in the water and their romantic sunset amble is one of the film’s highest moments. Steel wants to surprise Shazia by showing her a magnificent mansion. This fantastic building is like a luxury construction from the US or Europe and seems totally out of place in the general poverty. Steel points to it and promises Shazia he will buy if for her some day and it will be their home. He tells her this is what the gangster life is all about, providing the one he loves with a secure home.
Back in the city night is falling and an electronic billboard begins to show the music video the groups have made with a local singer, Murtazar. Moments from their experiences throughout the documentary have been cut into the song which Murtazar has written for the children of Jalalabad. This enables the audience to review what they have seen in a ‘feel good’ ending which culminates with the kids releasing shiny coloured balloons from the top of the Buddhist mountain where they jointly sing the song. The little five year old Gul Minah, however, continues her work of collecting recyclable materials through the night in the dangerous city of Jalalabad. Occasionally she looks up to the billboard along with the boys who have made it.
The balloons float out into a panoramic landscape which symbolizes all of Afghanistan and the chance that these children can build a better future without war.