George Gittoes is one of Australia’s most well-known and lauded painters and artists, however, despite releasing some of the most important documentaries of the last two decades, Gittoes has struggled in being recognised as a filmmaker. From filming “women and poetry” in Nicaragua in Bullets of the Poets, the streets of Miami in Rampage, to his current trilogy – commencing with The Miscreants of Taliwood, followed by Love City Jalalabad and concluding in his in progress Snow Monkey – Gittoes has made documentaries always painstakingly in the present and consistently enamoured in a sense of danger few documentary makers are willing to encounter. From being on the front lines of civil wars, trying to start an artist collective in Afghanistan to meeting the head of the Taliban, Gittoes’ output has been consistently groundbreaking yet overlooked. Gittoes is also a rare find as a Western filmmaker who avoids moralising the conflicts he encounters, constantly treating the countries and subjects he encounters with a respect contemporaries often lack. Whist supporting his Yellow House in Jalalabad, Gittoes is also the biggest producer of Pashtun language films in Afghanistan, finishing his latest film, and holding an exhibition on his art, movies, plays and other performance works at Hazelhurst Gallery. As one of Australia’s most important artists and filmmakers – and certainly our most diverse – I got up with Gittoes in late June to discuss his career, his retrospective exhibition and his current involvement in film and Afghanistan.
I wanted to start this by talking the start of your career. You moved over to New York in 1968 – what brought you there and what brought you back to Sydney for the Yellow House?
I probably have more art collaborators, friends and opportunities in New York than I’ve got here. What got me over there though was… I was going to Sydney University doing Fine Arts and I was doing minimal abstract paintings, which was the dominant style in American art. A great American critic Clement Greenberg came out – who was almost the God of Art Criticism in those days – and he saw my work, liked it and suggested I go to New York. It was interesting, on a film level too. I had to go by bus from Los Angeles to New York when I arrived and on the first night I managed to end up at some sort of festival of avant-garde film in a tent and I saw my first avant-garde film; an Andy Warhol flick screening among several others. I then got to meet him in early 1969 and he was doing these things with film and he let me use a camera. Anyway, that introduced me to film and experimental film in particular. Andy didn’t like running cameras himself so I ran a few cameras for him. Not that I had a great amount of time with Andy, but we lived on the same street. I was on 14th street and that’s when he had his factory in Union Square, after he’d been shot. When I came back to Australia I’d experienced Warhol’s Factory and Martin Sharp – who was seven years old than me – had been in London and we were both bored by Australia and thought unless we did something he’d go back to London and I’d go back to New York; so we did the Yellow House. The Yellow House, for me, was a multimedia thing – with puppets and theatre and film and photography – that was also very much the beginning of the ‘filmmakers co-op’. Which was very much Albie Thoms, Aggie Reed and Mick Glasheen and all those early filmmakers.
The art community in Australia doesn’t see that film is integrated in the filmmaking and the film community only sees me as a filmmaker and the art community only sees me as an artist; they don’t realise that it’s the same thing.
Filmmakers like Albie Thoms – even though I’ve probably had my films in more festivals than they have – never regarded me as a filmmaker. I think they kind of resented me doing both. Still people from that generation and my group; peers and contemporaries, still see Albie Thoms and Mick Glasheen and don’t count me as one of the filmmakers which is ridiculous. I’ve had my films seen all over the world, I’ve been in the Berlin Film Festival, but they still don’t see me as a filmmaker. They just don’t get it. Your generation totally understand it because now you find most art students doing everything, sometimes even multimedia. My generation still wants to pigeonhole people and –
Well as early as the Yellow House you’ve been an interdisciplinary artist, doing the puppet shows as well?
That’s right, but I also did many of the installations and I did performance art every night, introducing and writing plays – and they weren’t just puppets. I was doing ancient Sufi plays that hadn’t been performed in Australia because we couldn’t afford the actors to do them. We were doing a lot of modern theatre – we performed Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco and a lot of the Theatre of the Absurd. At the moment in this retrospective with my writing, my photography, and my film, we’re doing the play Afghan Book of the Dead. I used to do giant outdoor performance pieces in places like Guatemala. I pioneered these kind of large scale outdoor performance pieces. At the Yellow House in Jalalabad we’ve got an outdoor cinema, where we’re screening films every friday night.
Do you make them local films or are they –
Oh no, I’m the biggest producer of Pashtun language films in Afghanistan and one of the biggest ones in Pakistan. I’ve got Amir Shah because my documentaries are not understood by other filmmakers. We’re making Pashtun language dramas. I’ve made about 11 Pashtun language dramas and helped them to make another 30 or 40.
Did you have any intention of getting them out here or do you not think they’d be successful?
The problem is we go straight from editing the film to the release; we don’t do post-production. So it only costs around 14-15,000 to make 2-3 hour feature films. The cost of post-production to get them on TV is totally inhibiting. I’ve had them at anthology films in New York, for example, in arts venues, but if we tried to take the dramas we’re making in Afghanistan to the level they need to be to put them in festivals – I’m not talking about the quality of the film, the acting and the camera work but just the quality of grading – it’s thousands and thousands of dollars. That would mean we’d only be able to make one international release film for every ten domestic films and the object is to make them for the local audience. We’d love a benefactor to come along and say “hey, these films are really good” – and they are good films – “we’re going to give you a budget to do post on them”. I think that’ll happen, but, uh –
But that’s not the primary focus?
No it’s not. I mean, a huge change in my life came when I decided that making documentaries – and even cutting edge documentaries like mine or Michael Moore’s or whatever – is very unlikely to bring about change through politicians and the like. But by making the films there and getting them onto the local market; you’re training a whole generation of young filmmakers who can not only make films, they can make documentaries, they can do TV and everything else. You’re reaching the audience that can be really helped by them. In this case, all of our films feature women. One of the filmmakers we’ve got here at the moment is Neha. She’s the one in Love City Jalalabad who, you know, she was the first woman to make a Pashtun language Afghan film. So the films feature women – that’s a huge thing, women actresses – and they’re good quality stories. The things that were being made there in the past even the ones Amir Shah made were just horrible action films. It was actually Amir Shah who asked me to help; they wanted to make better quality films.
They were making films that were imitating the Pakistani films. The history of that is that I made Miscreants of Taliwood – and it’s about all the perils of trying to make films in Pakistan with the Taliban blowing up the video stores – and in order to make it I had to make two Pashtun language dramas to be able to make the documentary. When I showed the documentary at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, Oxfam approached me and said they were happy to fund the industry in Pakistan. So I went back with Oxfam’s money, but Oxfam and I both insisted they not be cheap exploitationist films – and that’s where we started meeting the actresses and actors and we made some beautiful films there.
While I was doing that Amir Shah and a couple of other filmmakers from Jalalabad came and said it was much worse in Afghanistan. When I first arrived there, virtually on the first day I arrived in Jalalabad – the center of Pashtun language film – the last video store was blown up. But I found a different quality of filmmaker in Afghanistan; they were more like fine artists whereas the people I worked with in Pakistan were lacking the same passion. While I helped them to make films beyond cheap, exploitationist shitty ones, as soon as I stopped working with them and the Oxfam money stopped they went back to the old type – whereas these guys, they asked me there because they wanted to make better films. They didn’t want make them like the Pakistani industry. They’re now making fantastic films on great subjects. Amir Shah has just finished one on corruption. Neha has just finished a documentary about wars in Afghanistan. They’re serious people and that’s one of the reasons why I’ve stuck with them.
Imagine a country where there’s 50 million people – a bigger population than Australia – and yet there’s no art schools, no film schools, no theatres, no outlets. When young people hears there’s a place in Jalalabad where they can go and learn film and make film with someone as crazy as me to help them, you know, they’ve come from everywhere. I’ve got the most talented people in the country. Amir Shah is one of the best. He recently won best film and best actor in the Kabul film festival, which is huge because all the filmmakers in Kabul were all assisted and helped by State Department money with huge budgets. The film he won with was a film I’d barely assisted with. He funded it, made it and wrote it completely himself in a period when I wasn’t there. So that’s really impressive; he beat films that had multimillion dollar budgets with his homegrown film, so it’s very encouraging.
What do you think the Americans feel they’re getting out of funding such films?
The Americans obviously see it as an anti-Taliban brach of the war; basically a “if the Taliban hate it, we like it” kind of thing. They’re promoting “American values” and they’re pretty horrible. They’re usually action flicks with lots of guns and stories about say, Miami Vice type movies. Obviously to get that sort of funding they need to pass a criteria – and I’m not against that, I’m just proud of Amir Shah and Neha. With their low budget films that they’ve made entirely themselves, they’ve beaten these things that are highly funded. But the problem in Afghanistan is the only people who they have the funding are in Kabul. No one ever goes outside of Kabul and Afghanistan is a big country. So people in other centers like Jalalabad don’t get any assistance. There’s no airport in Jalalabad and the road there is so dangerous that no one is allowed to go on it. So unless you can get a military flight, which is really hard to get, places like Jalalabad are cut off from funding, and no one knows what is going on there and no one can meet the people. The few filmmakers in the small inner city like Kabul, they can go and hustle the American State department, the embassy and stuff; and those are the ones that have gotten all the funding. As I’ve said, though, it’s come at a price – they’ve ended up doing a style of film that doesn’t deal with the presence of corruption. There’s no way the State Department would pass Amir Shah’s film which was about the money from the state being misused by the politicians of Afghanistan – they’re not going to screen anything critical of them.
What over the course of your career has drawn you to the places that have painted and filmed? Did you feel a certain imperative to go the very particular places you have or did it happen as a result of other things?
As a any kind of young artist, you’re very smart if you can find something that you’re good at and stick with it. I’m good at surviving war zones; I’ve got the abilities like a special forces soldier. You might as well as why does a special forces soldier like Paul Jordan do what they do? When you’re working in a war zone, you’re creating an affront of terrible destruction. That’s what kept me going; the idea that non-creative people, military people – who are basically trained destroyers – are destroying the place, there’s no more potent or relevant place to be creating. You feel what you’re doing is important. So I’m really happy with my life and what I’ve done and, like an athlete, I’m sure Ian Thorpe would love to be back in the pool competing – but this kind of work stretches you to the limit; every talent you’ve got – not just you’re ability as a filmmaker or a painter, but every talent that you’ve got as a human being to do with survival. At the end of a day of shooting in a war zone, you feel like a footballer would feel after they’ve come out of a State of Origin football match. You feel like you’ve been completely used up and every talent and ability you’ve got has been stretched to the limit. Believe me that’s a wonderful feeling, to feel that you’re using all the talents that God gave you and you’re using them to the limit.
But I’m really happy now to look back at all the films I’ve made and the art I’ve done and see an incredible consistency. I’ve never lost my nerve and I mean, look at an artist like Ben Quilty, he went off for a few weeks with the Australian Army to Afghanistan – but he’d never done anything like that before and will probably never do anything like that again. It’s probably just a good career move, because right-wing people like to think you’ve done something with the army. I’ve never been an official war artist. As a filmmaker-journalist I’ve coincided with the army because I’m a member of the AJA, but I’ve never gone as an official war artist. When you’re young, people think “maybe he’s doing this and when he gets older he’ll stop” but I’m 65 now and I’m still doing it and I’ve been doing it for many, many years. It’s a good feeling to know you’ve never backed down and never betrayed yourself.
A lot of the people of my generation – Yellow House people – started out with great ideals, but then they became obsessed with money and comfort and you’d hardly recognise them now. So it’s good to feel as if I’ve survived, you know?
I’m guessing you’re involvement in Jalalabad has deepened since Love City Jalalabad’s release last year?
Yeah, it has; it was pretty deep then though, because I’d been working in Afghanistan for nearly twenty years. Most documentary makers will have a subject – like, imagine someone finds it easy to get funding for a film about the abuse given to Afghan women by their husbands. So they contact a refuge in Kabul and they’ll find some nice social worker who knows three or four women who’ve been abused. So then they’ll have a film shoot where they’re able to be in Kabul for two or three weeks with a full film crew. And they’ll go out and they’ll use the expert social worker as a reference and they’ll get everyone and then like big game hunters they come back and they hang up their cameras and they say “we’ve been to Afghanistan” and they never go back. It’s just something they’ve done, and I’m very critical of that. Because in that short period of time you can’t really know the truth and it’s complex. It reminds me of the big game hunters in the 1980s who used to go to Africa and bag an elephant; they go off and bag their footage and then they’re back and next time they’ll be making a film about seal hunters in the arctic or this and that.
Love City Jalalabad is one of a trilogy that I’ve called the “What the World Needs Now” trilogy and we’re halfway through making Snow Monkey which is the 3rd film in the series and we’ve got funding from Screen Australia for it. Anyway, what I do with my films, my documentaries is – sometimes it’ll take four or five trips, like Rampage took for or five trips to Miami before I had it- because all of them are over a period of time, you see things evolve.
But also my technique is to come back and – I don’t look at my rushes, while I’m there, because if you look at your rushes and start structuring the film it actually inhibits the spontaneity of the project. And of course I come from the days of making 16mm films where I’d be in Nicaragua and it’s all 16mm and they had no way to process the film until I got back. So I’d need to come back, and I’d know the film in my head, and I’d do a rough cut. Then I’d know pretty clearly where the film is going and what I want to do. But before I come back, I set up all the next things I need to shoot so there’s no time lost when I come back. The hardest one is always the first one – even though I’ve got the Yellow House and I know everyone in Jalalabad, this film isn’t about the Yellow House or anything – it’s all new characters – and that takes time. So I’ve been in Jalalabad the last few months shooting the first half of Snow Monkey and when it’s finished the trilogy is finished – and I’ll probably go on supporting the Yellow House even if I may not be making documentaries there now. I might be making a documentary in the Philippines or Mali or somewhere else, but I’ve become so committed to the Yellow House that I’ll go on supporting it for as long as I can. We’re even thinking of buying a building there, because at the moment we’re leasing the building.
With the new film… an interesting thing happened – Joshua [Oppenheimer], the guy who made The Act of Killing, saw Miscreants of Taliwood and that inspired him to make Act of Killing. He followed the trail and went to my producers in Norway – and so Piraya Film produced both Love City and Act of Killing. So it’s interesting in that Miscreants kicked off Act of Killing because it was the film that you couldn’t tell what was real and unreal and that’s what he did in Act of Killing. When Tom Luddy introduced it at the Telluride Film Festival he said “there’s never been a film like this before I don’t know how to describe it, it’s not documentary, it’s not drama, it’s not anything within any definable genre”. Then Act of Killing came along and it’s the same genre as Miscreants of Taliwood. What he was able to do – and I was really impressed – he was he was able to do a three and a half hour version, which I was able to see at the Sydney Film Festival. Well I had very tight producing contracts with Love City and Miscreants – they had to be 90 minute films – but because Snow Monkey is funded with the signature fund it’s encouraging any kind of experimentation. I can decided to do a three – three and a half hour cut as well. Joshua eventually cut Act of Killing down – he made a 90 minute version, he made a 1 hour version for television – I think that’s great.
The style of film that Nick and I pioneered with Miscreants is very fast. There’s 4-5 cuts to every 1 cut from a normal documentary; and I’ve been doing that with all my films, including Rampage; they’re all cut like MTV. But now we can follow a puppy up a road and it doesn’t have to be 3 seconds of a puppy and that’s having an influence on the style of Snow Monkey, so I’m planning to possibly bring out a 3 and a half hour as an idea. So Act of Killing copied Miscreants and in this respect I’m copying that. But I’m also a very competitive person. Act of Killing was a much better film than Love City – it’s not ‘better’ than Miscreants, but it’s a better film than Love City and I’ve got to look at why, because I want Snow Monkey to blow every other film off the map. Act of Killing knocked Love City out of Telluride and it knocked me out of a few festivals. I like competing, and I think Act of Killing is a work of genius – an incredible film – but I want Snow Monkey to be better. As an Australian filmmaker I feel very good to be in this international class where Michael Moore took scenes from Soundtracks to War and used them in Farenheit 9/11 – at that time Michael Moore was the biggest documentary maker in the world – and now to be with the same producer as Act of Killing and to be challenged, it’s great. It’s like Picasso and Brach or something – to be challenged to bring out something better. The difference between us as filmmakers is that Joshua is working in a safe country of Indonesia and not a war zone – and he’s got professional camera men and everything else; I’m training my cameramen as I go. But mine’s got the advantage of being in the present – that we can be killed any minute – and that the killing and the violence, and the tension and the fear is real. It’s not something we’re talking about happening decades before like with The Act of Killing – it’s not retrospective; it’s in the present.
The very dangerous thing that I’m doing in Snow Monkey is that I’ve befriended Mawlawli Haqqani who is the head of the Taliban in Afghanistan – and through him I’m getting access to the Taliban – the Taliban the Americans are trying to kill. So I’m going into their strongholds. It’s very real, and very dangerous and very much in the present.
Will that interaction be the basis for Snow Monkey?
It’s, no – my films are very complex. Where I think Love City Jalalabad was a little bit weak was, well, as the ABC described it as a “re-run of the hippie era” and I don’t mind that. Love City opens with “love and not war”. Most people who lived through that era are ashamed of it. Your generation is sort of looking back thinking “that’s pretty fucking good”. On the other hand, Miscreants was filled with very real darkness, like in The Act of Killing. You’ve got the Grey Mosque scene where the suicide bomber comes in and kills everyone in the mosque, you’ve got the Taliban pulling the pistol on me, you’ve got the decapitation, you’ve got an anthropologist talking about homosexuality in Pakistan. It’s a tough film, mixed with comedy. And I don’t regret anything about Love City but the mix is not the mix that makes people jump up and down in that it hasn’t got the extremes of violence mixed with the extremes of comedy and that kind of stuff. We’ve got funnier moments in Snow Monkey, for example, we’ve got the ice-cream boys of Jalalabad who are taking over Jalalabad with their ice-cream music and their ice-cream event. I’ve gone into partnership with them and they’re distributing our movies – ice-cream and movies. And I’ve found the exact double of Vincent Van Gough, which is great for the Yellow House. There’s this sort of happiness and magic, like the ice-cream boys story is a lovely story like The Rocket and Nick Myers also edited The Rocket – so it’s got that. But it’s got the heart of darkness, which is going into Taliban country and talking to Taliban who have never been interviewed before. A lot of people would say Mawlawli Haqqani is one of the most dangerous people on earth.
I was reading Peter Jackson talking about the Hobbit trilogy and I think mine is kind of similar in a way. In that it’s not a multi-million, but he was saying when you do a trilogy, the first film you’re establishing everything and it’s tough, in the second you can relax and have a bit of fun and the third one you’ve got to wrap it up and the tension comes back. I think in my trilogy – and all along it’s been seen as a trilogy – sustaining the kind of tension you’ve got in Miscreants for a whole trilogy might have been too much. I had people faint in the cinema during the decapitation. To have a softer one in the middle doesn’t hurt and then to come back with something even tougher.
When were you expecting that Snow Monkey would be finished?
I expect to finish in December-January and have it edited and released this time next year. We’d like to get it in the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festival. So that’s our deadline, the Sydney Film Festival and Melbourne Film Festival next year.
Speaking of the Taliban, you’ve got a history where you’ve kind of been able to detach yourself from the situations and been able to avoid excessively moralising conflict as this side is doing the right thing and this side is the wrong. Approaching something like the Taliban which is viewed quite negatively in popular Western thought –
Well what you have to understand is that America has demonised their enemies all through history. The Viet Cong were demonised and called a variety of dehumanising, racist phrases. That said, there’s never been anyone more demonised by history than the Taliban, and America has done it. One of the reasons for this, like Vietnam, was it was a war that couldn’t be justified. Vietnam was a war of national liberation – it was the national liberation front they were fighting. Afghanistan had nothing to 9/11 anymore than Saddam Hussein did. It’s now been proven that Bin Laden was run by a desk in Pakistan and that’s where he was captured in Abbottabad. The Taliban actually said to the Americans, we will give you Bin Laden if you can just show us a bit of present. Say Australia wanted a crook extradited from America to here; we’d ask for the evidence before we extradited them. The Taliban asked for the evidence and George Bush invaded anyway, they didn’t wait. The Taliban in Afghanistan were no friends of Bin Laden, though. The problem is there’s a Pakistani Taliban and an Afghani Taliban. The Pakistani Taliban are the ones that do the suicide bombings and all these things you hear about. Basically, the Afghan Taliban are just doing what they did with the Russians – they’re fighting a foreign invade – but this time with the Americans. But the Americans have done a masterful job at demonising them. I think the Pakistani Taliban should be demonised. They’ve put a jihad on me – the Pakistani Taliban sent a letter to the Australian Embassy about 18 months ago offering to cut my head off and put it on TV. Their masters are Pakistani Interservices Intelligence – the people who ran Bin Laden. Talking to Haqqani, he’s quite happy to give the Yellow House thumbs up, accepted the electoral process, believes that young people need to have the arts and he’s for greater women’s freedom and all these things. He’s not perfect, but he’s certainly not worthy of being demonised and if I can talk to him the Americans can talk to him but they don’t want to. He’s saying that if Ashraf Ghani got in, he can work with Ashraf Ghani – so for me that’s a great sign because I want the Yellow House to continue, I want a peaceful Afghanistan and I want an end to all these years and years and years of war.
One thing that really annoys me is everyone I speak to here – and in America – says “oh well, Afghanistan has always had war, they’ve had thousands of years of war”. It’s like the world just dooms them to always still continuing to have war. But Afghans – if you talk to Amir Shah – don’t wan’t anymore war. They want a peaceful future, they want a big new city – like Canberra – outside Kabul which is a symbol of modernism and democracy. It’s like the world has a death wish for Afghanistan. It’s like a waste – “why send our soldiers there the fighting will never stop” – but none of that is fair or true. The interesting thing with someone who’s had a long as like as me – I’ve been with the Khmer Rouge and seen democracy come to Cambodia, I’ve been with the IRA and seen peace come to Northern Ireland, I’ve been in Sarajevo when it was under siege and seen an end to war in Sarajevo, I’ve seen South Africa – that was the worst – people said Apartheid would never end in South Africa. I’ve seen Mandela succeed in South Africa, I’ve seen Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, Nicaragua is now a free democracy – it just goes on and on. This pessimism the world has about these places, what they say about Afghanistan – could it just as easily have been applied to Northern Ireland? Many people said to me Northern Ireland would always have war and violence, but it’s over. I think it’s over in Afghanistan. My film is really important because it has that message. Give them a break, even the Taliban want peace, and everyone wants to have a modern future. It seems the Americans and everyone else – part of their exit strategy – is to repeatedly say “it’s a dysfunctional country, and no matter how generous we are and whatever we do it will always have war so we might as well get out and leave them to their own resources”. That’s really unfair because the Americans have done nothing to develop infrastructure, schools, hospitals, businesses – all they’ve plowed money into is the military and propaganda.
The interesting thing is that Ashraf Ghani, who is the one most people want to be President. He was at Columbia University, then a professor at Jon Hopkins, then at California University then he was at the World Bank and wrote the definitive book on fixing failed states – and he’s the person most Afghans want as a president and there couldn’t be a better qualified person in the world for fixing a broken country like Afghanistan. The Americans are backing Abdullah Abdullah, who’s a former Northern Alliance who’ll divide the country and cause civil war.
Is the American influence strong in that?
Yeah. So strong I imagine they’d be happy to rig the election to enable Abdullah Abdullah to win. Most people in Afghanistan think that if Abdullah wins then there’ll be general rebellion because people won’t believe the vote. Everyone you speak to outside of Kabul will say they’re voting for Ashraf Ghani – so it would be incredible if Abdullah wins, nobody would believe it.
On your recent brush with mortality, has it affected – at all – your approach to art or even your historical approach to being on the front lines of scenes of conflict?
Well, I’m not quite better and I’ve been doing the hardest and most frontline work of my life. Not long after recovering – not even fully recovering – I’m making another film; I’m going back there. That’s a part of my general approach of pushing myself beyond limits and I’ve got all these conservative people who says “oh, take care of your body and get a nice beach house and blah blah blah”. I listened to these people and I went down for a quick little holiday on the South Coast and I saw old couples – some of them probably younger than me, but they were old couples – walking along the beach hand in hand. I thought “what does this remind me of?” and I remembered the film they made called On the Beach (based on the Nevil Shute book) with the great actors Fred Astaire, Greta Garbo.1 Basically the world is finished, Australia is the last country, radiation clouds are coming and everyone is waiting to die – that’s what I think these people do when they buy their holiday house and retire. They go to antique shops and buy knick nacks, and visit bookstores and have nice cappuccino coffees and read the books they’ve always wanted to read and I can’t think of anything more depressing than that. Basically it’s given me an even stronger, and passion, for what I do. So that’s it, you know. The last day we were in Kabul, we went to Kunar which is pretty dangerous, and we climbed up a hill to film a gravesite. What I’ve actually realised about a lot of artists who’ve reached me age and kept on going is that you really know how to make films or you really know how to paint. Like, I really can’t do a bad painting anymore – well, if I do something bad, I can fix it – the same with film. While I may not be able to run up the hill like I did before, I can direct and shoot and get more out of that day than I could have when I would have leaped up the film, so I’m going to keep going and I’m going to push myself to the limits.
There’s an article by Paul Jordan – the special forces soldier who was with me in Kibeho – he’s not much younger than me and he’s still working in the field. He’s training Middle Eastern solider and this and that; he’s doing special operations. Both him and me agree that neither of us have found our limits, and when you give up trying to find what your limits are you might as well be like the people on On the Beach waiting to die. I feel like I’m doing the best work of my life and I’m enormously excited by Snow Monkey and I’ve got young people like Emir Shah helping me. In a way it’s good. When you get older you learn to hand over more responsibility to the people you’re with. I’m quite happy to give Amir a camera. In the past I felt I had shoot everything, maybe with one other camera man. I’ve learned him and others in the crew are good enough to shoot everything, to get my vision, leaving me free to make the scene happen.
With a documentary like this, you go in and find your subject and it can all seem chaotic, but once chosen that subject – for example one of our subjects are the boys who sell ice-cream. Once you’ve chosen that, you find out that one of the ice-cream boys fathers is an opium addict who has to sell ice-cream to feed his fathers habit, and turns up with bruises on his face from his father beating him. Then you know you’ve got to get a scene with the father and work out how to do that. You can’t have the kid talk about the father without seeing him. When you pick your subject and you pick your characters it does become a bit like a drama. The reason we’re getting ice-cream boys to sell the video is because women can come out of their houses and buy them, but they aren’t allowed to go to video stores and buy them. If we said that in the narration but didn’t show women buying the DVD’s we’d be making something incomplete. You go through a phase where you’re discovering the subject and then you hit a more worker day phase where you’ve got to get all the elements that the subject needs to tell that story properly and that’s where that becomes more like drama.
The wonderful thing is there’s constant surprises, like our character Vincent. We’re doing the ice-cream boys and we discovered Vincent Van Gogh selling ice-cream. So I decide to go down and film him selling more ice-creams and there are these boys who have these pants made of very tightly cut nylon cotton. They can’t swim, so they puff the pants up like big balloons so they have huge balloon-like legs to jump in the river so they’ll flow down with the river and they won’t sink. So you’ve gone out to film Vincent selling ice-cream and you find that you’ve made this wonderful discovery and that’s why I love documentary and I never want to do drama because it’s not that scripted. You can constantly make discoveries and find things which are enormously entertaining. The bottom-line of all of this is the challenge is with compassion fatigue. So if you saw a film about how at the moment we’ve discovered that more than 70% of the medicines sold in Afghanistan are fake; they’re counterfeit. They’re in beautiful boxes, they look real, but they’re just white powders. So people are dying because they’re being given an antibiotic for their pneumonia and their chest doesn’t get any better and they die. People on 3 dollars are day are going out and spending all their money to buy something that doesn’t work, you see. Now that is a worthy subject of a film but no one would watch it – you wouldn’t watch it. People would just find it boring. It’s the sort of film you might watch if you were forced to watch it. When I judge documentary film competitions I often have to watch dozens of movies like that and it’s hard for me to keep my eyes open. They’re worthy subjects, but they’re as boring as hell.
So in our film, I discover Vincent – and everyone is amazed because he looks so much like Vincent Van Gogh – and then we discover that his mother is very sick. And already one of the candidates in the local election is established to be a doctor who is fighting this corruption, so we follow the doctor along to see his mother and she discovers that Vincent has been selling ice-cream to buy medicine and it’s turned out to be white powder. So you’re outraged, but it’s extremely entertaining; discovering Vincent’s mother, when she removes the veil from her face it’s beautifully tattooed – there are all these amazing things you discover. The doctor has a ‘barber shop’ wax moustache and we’re lucky that we got him around to the Yellow House before we met Vincent and filmed him casting his vote. That’s an essential character for the Vincent story. In my film I’ll cover many subjects. For instance, Irfan will show the problem of heroin addiction in Afghanistan. What I’m saying is the challenge with making documentaries these days is to work out ways to keep people watching them, to make them entertaining; my docs are really entertaining. We just showed Love City Jalalabad at Eurodocs – which is one of the big festivals in Europe – and everyone loved it, they stayed for question time, and everyone said it was amazing to see a “feel good” movie from Afghanistan.
As you’ll see from Love City and Miscreants there’s a lot of comedy in my films, and you just know when you’re doing it. There’s a moment with Haqqani where I say well how do you get on with this phone thing – because there’s predator drones, etc – and he takes out his seven phones and talks about changing his sim cards everyday. The way he pulls them all out is really funny, but the Americans – the ones who are trying to monitor him through these things – wouldn’t find it at all funny. In the context of the Yellow House and everything it’s really good humour, though. With Irfan’s father, the opium addict; no father in the world would let you go and interview him about why he beats his wife and forces his son to sell ice-cream. So I go in with a whole lot of Coca-Cola cans and a packet of smokes and give it to him and we crack open the coca cola and I say “next time I come I’ll bring some vodka”. He says “oh yes, Vodka” and I say “so you really like music?” and I say “I can imagine you just putting on some good music and smoking some hash and having a few drinks” – “oh yes” – at that point all three of us, Irfan, me and the father, pick up a coke and drink it at the same time and it’s just terribly funny. At the same time, it completely establishes that Irfan’s story about his father is true, but it’s funny – but it’s deadly serious funny.
The problem for me as a filmmaker is to ask “do we dramatise this?” and “do we get an actor?” and with Irfan’s story I said “no, we’ll just do it through comedy and I’ll be relaxed” and it worked. When we looked at the brushes in the editing room everyone cracked up; it was just so funny. That’s our job now: finding the humour. When Nick and I are editing a film and we’ve got to cut it down we often have to lose very serious stories to get it to the right length – but I always say to Nick “take out as many serious stories as you like but don’t lose a single gag” because comedy is so hard to achieve and it’s just so good, you know? In all my experiences of war, what sees people through the worst horror is our human ability to laugh and to see the comic in things, and that’s it.