Australian-born artist, war photographer, filmmaker and humanitarian George Gittoes arrived in Amsterdam hard on the heels of winning the Sydney Peace Prize for making a “significant contribution to peace with justice, respect for human rights and the language and practice of non-violence.” A veteran of warzones as far afield as Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia and Iraq, Gittoes first turned his attention to Afghanistan in 2011, establishing the Yellow House Jalalabad as a cultural center to promote art, filmmaking, music, dance and performance.
Gittoes’ experiences in Jalalabad, where he shares a base with his partner and fellow artist Hellen Rose, form the basis of “Snow Monkey,” an insider’s view of a city often described as one of the most dangerous in the world. Focusing on the legions of street kids who sell ice cream for a living (hence the title), “Snow Monkeys” takes a digressive approach to the documentary format, frequently taking time out from its human subjects to note the shocking details of daily life in Afghanistan, such as the drone bombers that routinely pass overhead.
The effect is immersive, a word Gittoes positively welcomes. “That’s the right word for this,” he says. “It’s meant to be an immersive film. A reviewer the other day called it Dickensian, which was very perceptive – remember those long Dickens novels about the poor children of London? Being in Jalalabad really reminded me of London in those days, during the early industrial revolution, with five-year-old kids operating the doors on the mines, that kind of stuff. So I thought I’d try to make it as immersive as Dickens, I’d take you into that world. This is like being able to go back into a time capsule. People who’ve seen the film say they feel like there’s dust on their feet, and that’s what I wanted to achieve.”
Significantly, the film has raised eyebrows at IDFA, not just for its often upsetting content – including footage of the carnage following a local bombing in April, which killed 35 people – but for its running time, a hefty 148 minutes. “It’s interesting,” says Gittoes, “there seems to be a consensus in the documentary world that you can’t have a film as long as this. So after screenings, other documentary filmmakers come over to me and tell me how to cut it down. After the opening night, one of them told me to lose the love story, lose this character, lose that character – but to me, those are my favorite bits of the movie.”
Gittoes believes that documentary films may be about to enter a new era, citing his earlier film “Soundtrack to War”, made between 2003-’04. “It was the same time as Michael Moore’s ‘Fahrenheit 911’ – I did some of the filming for that – and Morgan Spurlock’s ‘Super Size Me.’ It was the year that the ‘superdoc’ broke, so Rolling Stone did a feature on that, and they included ‘Soundtrack To War.’ And we all thought 90-minute feature-film documentaries were a new thing then. Now, the guy who told me I should lose those things, I asked him, ‘Well, do you watch HBO?’ and he said, ‘Oh no, I only watch old movies.’ But I watch everything. I’ve been watching things like ‘The Hobbit’ and the latest ‘Avengers,’ which is almost the same length as our movie, as is the latest ‘Terminator.’
“That’s feature films,” he continues. “But you’re never going to get a film like this in many cinemas, you’re never going to get more than a specialist audience in an arthouse cinema or at a festival like IDFA. But what we’re hoping for is that companies like Netflix and HBO are moving things forward. We’ve gone into a new era, the era of ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and serial television. I’d be happy to rent a film like ‘Snow Monkey.’ I’d watch it, and I’d stop it halfway through and go and make a cup of tea, or go for a walk with my dog, then I’d come back and watch the rest it. So I’m starting to think that there can start to be Dickensian documentaries. It’s been a big gamble for me, to make a two-and-a-half-hour film, but I feel exactly the way I did when I made my first superdoc – I feel that suddenly there’s going to be an audience for immersive, longer documentaries.”