Having a certain familiarity with the broader context of Snow Monkey and the work of artist George Gittoes is a great advantage in approaching his latest film. It’s not that this is a work that can’t be appreciated as a standalone piece – it’s a phenomenal and intimate study of conflict, innocence and the healing and transformative power of art – but it is the absolute realisation of a much longer project for Gittoes, being the construction of the Yellow House, Jalalabad. Initially, Gittoes ended up in the Middle East to help produce telie films 1 in Pakistan to push back against the growing influence of the Taliban – resulting in the release of his 2009 documentary The Miscreants of Taliwood. Once in the region, however, Gittoes came into contact with his now-colleague Amir Shah, an action star in Afghanistan. The Yellow House in Jalalabad 2 was established in 2011, and produced the light-hearted Love City Jalalabad a few years later. In retrospect, that film serves as exposition for Gittoes’ far more expansive, confronting and encompassing Snow Monkey.
Gittoes’ career has frequently jumped between artist, activist, and journalist – with his filmmaking more an expression of these aforementioned urges than an ends in and of itself. Snow Monkey is a film of and about Jalalabad, with a profound focus on shades of nuance. It’s both a study of the political vicissitudes, sociocultural trends in society, and an existential probe into the lives of the people in the city. Going beyond this, the film operates on a meta-level, using these case studies to delve into the possibilities and limits of art, filmmaking and expression; as responses to propaganda, terror, and fear. None of these are new ideas to Gittoes, but in Snow Monkey the director takes his involvement in Jalalabad to a far deeper level of emotional and physical involvement than ever before.
Snow Monkey finds its primary focus in the youth in the city. Gittoes trains his lens on various gangs of children, with some of the most feared people in the city being under fourteen years old. Snow Monkey is named after one of the aforementioned gangs, Wari Shadi, who operate icecream carts through the streets of Jalalabad. After a confrontation with a rival group, led by Steel – one of the most feared children in the village – the two groups are brought together by Gittoes, who convinces them to make a film about their conflict. It’s a familiar strategy for the director, whose philosophy is deeply-seated in the belief that introducing art into zones of conflict can create a path to resolution.
Steel, at age 10, is introduced to us with a line of voiceover –”I don’t like weak people, why should I?”. He keeps a razor blade under his lip and at one point demonstrates to Gittoes his chosen methods of physical intimidation. Gittoes’ doesn’t overtly push back against Steel as a character, understanding him as a product of circumstance with incredibly deep-seated habits and views. A lot of what Steel says is shocking, and a lot of what Snow Monkey portrays is shocking, however, to view it as excessively, indulgently or gratuitously so is to misunderstand the film in a way that perpetuates the same mentality of ignorance and detachment that allows these circumstances to emerge. It’s a documentary that gives faces to statistics, to the consequences of war, and an element of hope absent in so many Western narratives surrounding Afghanistan.
In one of the more subtly confronting scenes a child – Irfan – tells Gittoes that his father beats both him and his mother. Rather than confronting the father about this in any overt sense, he sits between the two and hands them both cans of Coca Cola. Initially the father is quite stiff and uncomfortable with the interview, however, exploiting a jocular discourse of masculinity, Gittoes jokes around that the father is just a guy who “likes to smoke a bit of hash, have a few drinks, and listen to some music”. The man pauses and laughs before responding “yes, the good life”. The camera lingers on Irfan, who looks noticeably upset at the utterance of the phrase. In this sense, Gittoes avoids indulging in gratuitously depicting interpersonal violence, instead confirming Irfan’s story through facial expressions and hollow pleasantries.
There’s a palpable intimacy built up over the course of the film everyone Gittoes interacts with. There’s also a greater sense of attachment to the children, who learn how to act and film at the Yellow House, commanding their own identities. Snow Monkey isn’t simply concerned with this progression, though, its focus is remarkably varied. We’re given scenes of Steel in love, talking with his partner about their dreams for the future. The Snow Monkey gang are revealed to be part of a Kochi tribe, and Gittoes goes to their camp on the outskirts of Jalalabad to meet their elders. In another scene, looking for a boy’s father, Gittoes’ and his crew walk into the section of town where heroin addicts congregate. When the boy’s father is located, it’s revealed that he has lost sight in one of his eyes from an American raid – one of many civilian casualties. The camera work in these scenes – done by both Gittoes and the boys – never feels invasive, with the concise takes bringing a sense of intimacy.
Gittoes’ film comes at its audience with a specific message, that these violent events and these moving stories are underseen to such a degree in the West that an enormous gap between empathy and understanding exists. At times, the tonal shifts between the more confronting and serious stories and the more upbeat tales can seem disorienting, but Snow Monkey is a documentary trying to be faithful to a fuller spectrum of experience in Jalalabad. When the film has its most intense moments – attacks from the Pakistani Taliban – Gittoes’ presents them in the fullest and most confronting manner. We’re shown bombings, assassinations, but never in excess; they exist here as reminders of the dehumanisation of this violence when often viewed in the West. Furthering this point of distance, whenever a drone flies overhead, it’s captured on camera, giving us the perspective of those who see them flying overhead every day, who know the casualties that are frequently portrayed as faceless statistics on an international stage.
Snow Monkey is a continuation of Gittoes’ approach of mediating between documentary and fiction. In the most shocking scenes of the film, mostly in its final hour, Gittoes’ shares a lot of the camera work with the characters he’s introduced throughout – as well as those introduced in Love City Jalalabad. They film the assassination of one of central characters’ father as well as a bombing by the Pakistani Taliban on the Kabul bank. In the immediate aftermath of the scene one of the youngest boys, who shot a portion of the bombing, gives the film one of its most enduring statements: “I learned camera work so that when things like this happen, I can record it and show the world.” Snow Monkey is George Gittoes’ strongest work as a filmmaker, and an absolute realisation of his artistic intention in Jalalabad. It neglects a conventional form and pace for a lengthy, slow-burning, and deeply humanistic impressionism; those familiar with Gittoes’ previous work will view Snow Monkey as his masterpiece.
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