The challenges besetting the American independent film scene are nothing compared to those faced by Pakistani filmmakers, who also have the Taliban to contend with. In “The Miscreants of Taliwood,” Australian artist George Gittoes samples the eccentric Pashto pics, which meld over-the-top gunplay with impromptu Bollywood-style numbers, and even ventures to make one himself, mostly as a pretext to poke around those corners of the country Westerners seldom witness. This ragged chronicle of his experience falls somewhere between performance art and gonzo journalism, with Gittoes risking his neck on a stunt few beyond the festival and gallery sphere will see.
“Miscreants” marks the final entry in Gittoes’ “No Exit” trilogy, a series of conflict-seeking docus whose widest exposure came courtesy of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which sampled several scenes from his Iraq-made “Soundtrack to War.” Gittoes has no qualms putting himself in harm’s way, virtually inviting trouble as he extends his quirky Moore-style investigations to the militantly Islamic locale.
Opening with the 2007 Red Mosque Siege in Islamabad, Gittoes immediately contrasts the slapstick violence featured in the region’s low-budget films with the very real conflicts unfolding in the streets around him. Armed with handheld video cameras, he and 23-year-old Pashtoon assistant Waqar Alam navigate the streets around the standoff until suddenly, alone in a blind alley, Gittoes appears to be gunned down in a stagy bit of make-believe.
It is the first of numerous onscreen executions, several of which star Gittoes as he gamely agrees to play a Western baddie in local pics. The Taliban disapproves of such irreverent entertainment, burning videos and music in public bonfires and pressuring DVD vendors to shut down their shops. But terrorist groups are not without their own film crews, offering different, more overtly propagandistic videos to the Pakistani public, in which the executions are not staged. The most disturbing image in “Miscreants” depicts a young boy, perhaps 10 years old, beheading a prisoner on camera.
Gittoes’ motto is “I don’t seek, I find,” suggesting that he merely collects the unusual situations around him (including reactions to Benezir Bhutto’s assassination). And yet, for the most part, “Miscreants” shows the helmer going far out of his way to stir up scenarios for his film. No Westerner idly ventures into “Action Terror Central,” the Taliban-controlled Tribal Belt along Pakistan’s North West Frontier, unless he’s looking for trouble.
Even attention-monger (and Osama bin Laden seeker) Morgan Spurlock would think twice about staging scenes with automatic weapons within earshot of Al Qaeda training camps, but not Gittoes. In the District of Dir, he arranges an edgy interview with MMA Party head Maulana Gul Naseeb, who explains the fundamentalists’ objection to frivolous films and offers a chilly prediction on the rise of Islam.
Gittoes repeatedly positions the religious crackdown as a threat to artistic expression, yet there’s not really any “art” to speak of in the bawdy slapstick generated by the local film industry (or the easily accessible hardcore films its stars occasionally make on the side, explicit examples of which make “Miscreants” unratable by the MPAA). More enlightening are Gittoes’ controversial digressions into local customs, such as the role homosexuality plays in a culture so protective of its women.
The unfortunate tradeoff with such a wide-ranging and semi-freeform essay is a certain sloppiness of form. Gittoes assembles hours of clumsy, handheld footage using odd picture-in-picture effects and other inelegant techniques, stitching it all together with speculative narration. There’s a rough, unpolished quality to the result, as if perhaps the director (who frequently invokes Daniel Pearl) didn’t expect to survive the process and hoped someone else might shoulder the burden of making sense of his material.