The Taliban have had a bum rap, says Australian artist and filmmaker George Gittoes. “Oh, absolutely. We have a fantastic relationship with the Taliban. The whole conflict in Afghanistan has been grossly misreported.”
Gittoes ought to know. Since 2011, he and his partner Hellen Rose have been running The Yellow House in Jalalabad, a major city in eastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan. An arts and community hub with 18 residents (all adult), The Yellow House is where he teaches the basics of filmmaking and distribution to a gang of street kids called the snow monkeys – so named because they wander the city selling icy poles out of small refrigerated push-along carts. Here, too, the kids have received tutoring that’s helped them get into school – and to glimpse for the first time the possibility of a life beyond the street.
Gittoes’ relationship with these kids, and with two other gangs – the “Ghostbusters”, whose cans of smoke are said to ward off evil spirits, and a criminal gang headed by a pint-sized razor-wielding 10-year-old called Steel – is at the heart of his documentary Snow Monkey, one of the more remarkable films at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
This is an Afghanistan both familiar and strange. The Taliban’s head man in the area comes to The Yellow House for tea. “My experience is, he’s a good guy,” says the 65-year-old who founded the original Yellow House in Sydney in 1970 with a group of artists that included Martin Sharp (Brett Whiteley was briefly associated with it too).
In Jalalabad, US helicopters and drones fly overhead. “We’ve had them train their rockets on us. We’ve had to wave at them and hope.”
But the biggest danger is from the kidnappers. “The going rate for Hellen is $400,000,” Gittoes says. “That’s a lot of money to me. And you have to pay it or she’d be decapitated.”
Danger aside, Gittoes is determined to paint a picture of Afghanistan that’s a lot more rounded than the one we get via the occasional news reports. “What we’re saying in this film is that most Afghans, like most Australians, are nice people, they’ve got aspirations.”
He also wants to make a case that art and a sense of community are much better tools to rebuild a broken country than military might.
“If the Australian army came and put a gun to Haqqani’s head and said ‘You’ve got to come and meet with the local female MP and nut out better conditions for women’, they’d fight it out, he’d pull out his AK-47 and they’d kill each other. But I can ring him up and say, ‘Haqqani, we’ve got Amara here, let’s have morning tea’, and he’ll be around in five minutes.”
And if that doesn’t do it, there’s an economic argument, too. He says it costs about $100,000 a year to run the Yellow House; each Australian solder – whether they’re a cook or in the SAS – costs about $1 million.
None of which is to suggest there’s an easy road to peace in Afghanistan. Snow Monkey includes some shocking footage – a snippet of a beheading from a jihadi propaganda video; extensive scenes shot by a 13-year-old snow monkey of the grisly aftermath of a suicide bombing – plus the testimony of Shafeeq, who is labelled “the suicide bomber who didn’t”.
Shafeeq’s tale is truly horrendous. He was kidnapped outside his school, beaten with electrical wire, and dumped in a dark hole for a couple of days. After promising not to run away, he was trained to become a suicide bomber. When his moment came, he turned himself over to police; he spent months in a prison for former child suicide bombers, many of whom have been fed drugs that leave them unable to sleep and in a psychotic state for months.
“They’re not doing it by free will,” says Gittoes, who is convinced it is the Pakistani Taliban and secret service who are behind the operation. “The Afghan Taliban have never been terrorists, they have never subscribed to the suicide bombing thing.
“I’m not an advocate of the Taliban by any means – I’d much rather see democracy succeed – but our feeing is that the Afghans in Jalalabad, whether they are Taliban or feminist leaders or the police, want peace. And the enemy of peace is coming from down south in Pakistan.”
Snow Monkey screens on Monday and Saturday. George Gittoes will speak at the Wheeler Centre at 5.30pm on Thursday as part of the Talking Pictures panel Lights, Camera, Action! Film and Social Impact. The Age is a media partner of the Melbourne International Film Festival.