Words || Angus Dalton
“I have been close to being killed so many times that no particular incident
sticks out in mind.”
I should’ve known that asking George Gittoes about the most terrifying experience he’s ever had was a stupid question. How do you choose between being caught in the crossfire of Afghan army rockets, having a Taliban sympathiser press a revolver to your temple and pull the trigger (the gun jammed – if it didn’t this interview wouldn’t be taking place), or receiving a letter from ‘Informer XYZ’ that contained a serious threat to decapitate you on live television?
As of this year, Gittoes has been documenting war through film, art and photography for three decades. Recently, George has been living in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, where he and his wife Hellen Rose set up an artists’ refuge called the Yellow House. Here they’ve enlisted the help of street kids to shoot Pashto-style films – which are typically hyperactive, vivacious and full of melodramatic violence – as the Taliban raze the previously popular video stores. In their place, stalls are built by the Taliban that sell propaganda DVDs containing real life horror-scenes of children being forced to saw off heads.
The level of atrocities being committed in this part of the world – which George calls ‘Terror Central’ – are dire. But where others arm themselves with guns, George wields paint brushes and shoulders his camera as a militant would a rocket launcher; there’s nothing he believes in more than the ability of art to preserve humanity in the face of the destruction of war.
“All these tight regimes from Hitler to Daesh (IS) want total control, and art enables a kind of freedom which is contagious – that is why they fear it.”
George’s latest documentary, Snow Monkey, shows how he recruits street kids to make an action film amid the conflict in Jalalabad. The first group of kids he befriends are the Snow Monkeys. They are young boys who sell ice cream on the streets out of hand-pushed trolleys that screech some hellish version of Greensleeves.
The other group are called the Ghostbusters. George explains that they’re indigenous Kuchi kids who hawk exorcisms, offering to hurl plumes of magic smoke through cars and homes to do away with evil spirits.
And then there’s Steel.
He’s the ten-year-old ringleader of a local street gang. He keeps a razor blade tucked between his lip and gum, and wields an AIDS-infected syringe that he uses to extort money from his victims. He keeps control of the gang
through brutality and intimidation – George documents him bashing grown men and slashing the face a boy who couldn’t pay up.
“It is my job to bring this vast cast to life and get audiences to care about them,” George says. “The biggest surprise was when Steel revealed that he had a girlfriend, Shazia, and I found myself documenting and beautiful love story with a character who had seemed like a heartless monster.”
At one point George and the team thought the entire project would be brought to an end – bloodily – when the leader of the local Taliban, Moulana
Huqqani, walked through the gate of the Yellow House with two AK-47
wielding guards. George’s team caught the whole ordeal on tape. The shaky camera work conveys the panic of the filmmakers, captures George’s fear and the moment his wife – a gregarious performance artist – arms herself with a handgun.
But their fear was soon quelled. The Afghan Taliban leader had come to ask if his sons could join the filmmaking, and give his blessing to George’s work.
George says it’s great pity the media doesn’t differentiate between the
Afghan and Pakistani Taliban – the latter are the extremist regime who kidnap children to train as suicide bombers and have regularly threatened George and Hellen with execution. But the former, George believes, have been wrongly demonised in the wake of 9/11 for an act of terrorism they never supported.
“These are just militia farmers defending their country – as courageous and nationalistic as any of our ANZACS in Gallipoli,” he says.
But if Haqqani had turned out to be a foe, George would have fallen back on the skill that has saved him life on multiple occasions: storytelling.
“Whenever I’ve got a couple of blokes about to cut my head off I just start
telling stories, and no one wants to kill the storyteller; it’s too good an entertainment,” he laughs.
George soon found himself painting ‘a portrait of evil personified’.
His skill as a portrait artist has also afforded him the odd life-saving escape route. George spent time in the Congo during 1995 documenting the Hutu massacres ordered by the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. George was captured with incriminating tapes that showed the war crimes Kagame’s soldiers had been committing – this meant swift death. But before his captors could kill him, George blurted that he’d come to them on purpose to request a formal portrait with Kagame. The lie was so blatant and bizarre that the confused men obliged, and George soon found himself painting ‘a portrait of evil personified’.
George had, around the same time, painted what he still calls his most profound portrait at aftermath of one of Kagame’s massacres. It was of a Rwandan woman named Immacule, whose head had been hacked into with a machete. Her brain was showing. A doctor said she had no hope in the filthy conditions, and suggested George sit with her and draw her face while she died. George said to Immacule, “I want the world to see what has been done to you”.
“From that moment it became a collaboration, with Immacule struggling to cling on to life until I had finished. She was not going to be another body in a mass grave, her life unrecorded or unknown. I went on to paint a dozen large paintings of Immacule and they have been exhibited all over the world.”
When you view a piece of art like Immacule’s portrait, most other art seems shamefully meek. George describes Australian society as apathetic; our art, for the most part, is nothing more than flat-wall furniture to match the
Only someone with a lack of fear and a death-defying passion for art would put themselves in the situations George has, to make films with otherwise purposeless street kids in an attempt to revive the quashed entertainment industry of the Middle East. He hopes bringing back tales of war will provoke us out of our apathy.
His next trip is to Brown Sub, Miami. George tells me more people are being shot there in gang violence than in Baghdad at the height of the Iraq war; it’s now that he manages to answer my initial question.
“The chances of me being killed are very high but I will soon leave for Miami with no hesitation. My answer to your question about the most dangerous situation I have faced: it is never in the past, but always the next one I am about to step into.”
This article was originally published in Volume 8, Issue 8: Prom Night.