‘It would be much harder to film something in the streets of Sydney than in Jalalabad.’

 Australian artist and filmmaker, George Gittoes has set up mobile studios for three decades, creating works in regions of conflict around the world. He has worked in North America, Europe, Middle East, Asia Pacific and Africa, creating works in both traditional and digital mediums, still and moving images, within a matrix of cultural interfaces.

Mr. Gittoes is currently making films in Afghanistan, painting and drawing and continuing to move around the globe. His documentary film Love City Jalalabad was widely acclaimed and screened at many international film festivals. He also runs Yellow House, an art and film school in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. In a freewheeling interview with Syed Zafar Mehdi, he talks about his cinema, his love affair with Afghanistan and his dreams for the war-weary country.

Q. You are known for your documentation of the effects of war in films and on canvas – how difficult or easy is your job?

A.     I grew up in Rockdale, Sydney, a neighborhood always favored by new migrants. For a kid born in 1949, this meant I was surrounded by refugees from World War II. A war my own father and uncle had fought in. People took me to their homes and I learnt of all the terrible things they had endured. When I travelled to America in 1968, I saw injustices about race that did not fit with the Hollywood image we had been shown through film, as well as the mass protests against the Vietnam War. I started doing drawings and paintings about the civil rights movement and Vietnam and that is how it all started.

I regard my work as a war against war. I have been at the frontline of conflict in Cambodia, Somalia, Nicaragua, Philippines, Palestine, Southern Lebanon, Western Sahara, Sinai, South Africa, Rwanda, Mozambique, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, East Timor, Bougainville, Tibet and Iraq.

This job has not been as bad as it may seem because people everywhere have been kind and warm to me. The violence is always caused by a minority while the majority suffers. People see me as an advocate and friend, willing to risk my life to tell their story to the world. For example, whenever I arrived in Baghdad during the worst days of the war, the people who ran my apartment would say “everyone else is here trying to destroy our country but you are here to create and show the beauty of our culture”.  It is wonderful to feel so appreciated and loved.

Q. How did you come to make Love City Jalalabad and how did your love affair with Afghanistan start?

A.      My relationship with Afghanistan goes back a long way. Australian Army Engineers set up a demining program in coordination with the UN and I documented their work in the 1990’s. I travelled all over the country spreading mine awareness and made many friends, basically falling in love with the country and the culture.

The work I have done with the Jalalabad film fraternity, however, came about because of the assistance I offered to the Pashtun language Tele Movie industry out of Peshawar. While making my documentary Miscreants of Taliwood, I started funding dramas. This led me to the Dutch NGO Oxfam who providing a small budget to create work for this industry which had been devastated in the war. In a sense, I became a one-man-film-school, teaching the latest techniques in camera, sound and script writing. All the filmmakers were self-taught and had not known the benefits and nuances of formal training.

I believe some of the artists and filmmakers I have met can stand up with the best in the world and will be known for the greatness of their contribution in generations to come

The filmmakers of Jalalabad are linked with those in Peshawar and often use the same editors and equipment. When Amir Shah Talash and Mohammad Shah Majroh heard of what I was doing, they visited me on the sets and persuaded me to come to Jalalabad.

The first day I arrived in Jalalabad, one of the video stores was bombed, graphically demonstrating the difficulties filmmakers were facing there. My reaction was to book the Spingah Hotel and start working with this talented group on script development.

We needed to find a subject that would allow women to play strong and meaningful roles in films, which would appeal to audience for their content and storytelling rather than the usual action – violence shown in the Pakistani films. Films men would want to purchase as DVDs and take home for their wives and daughters to share in the entertainment. We decided that there was nothing more universal or enjoyed by Afghans than a good love story. I was so impressed by the Jalalabad group of artists that I was happy to give all my support to make three feature length dramas. I was joined in Jalalabad by my wife Hellen Rose, who is a famous Australian actress, singer and theatre director. The three films we made were Love City, Talk Show and The Tailor’s Story, all based on true stories we had collected from real people in Jalalabad.

Q.What is the film Love City Jalalabad about, and why did you choose Jalalabad?

A.     In a sense, Jalalabad chose me as I was invited there to help the local film industry as a guest and now I see it as my second home.

The name Love City Jalalabad is confusing because one of the three dramas we made in Pashto language is also called Love City. My documentary is about the process of forming the film group and creating a base for them in what we have named the Yellow House. The film shows the making of the three adult dramas and a children’s film with a first-time Pashtun woman director. The film then follows us taking the actors and films to communities with our Cinema Circus. We screen the films inside a tent to mainly children who have never seen films before. These films appeal because they are made with Afghans about Afghan culture.  The reactions have been joyous and we have proven that those foreigners who say Afghans do not like art, music and film are wrong.

Initially I was not interested in making a documentary as I felt this had all been covered by my film Miscreants of Taliwood about similar work in Pakistan. But, as the cameras rolled, I realized the footage we were getting was much more positive and happier than what we shot in Pakistan. Miscreants of Taliwood is a relatively dark film about an embattled industry and their hardships but Love City Jalalabad is all about fun, joy and love.

Q. Tell us about the Yellow House Jalalabad. What was the idea behind it?

A.     The Yellow House was created to serve multiple purposes as an art and film school in Jalalabad, where there was nothing for young artists and filmmakers to develop their skills.

I have been the sole funder of the Yellow House because I believe so deeply in fostering talent I discovered there. I have done this as a private individual. The aim is to make it self sufficient within a few years with its products, film and artworks, finding markets that can sustain it without outside help.

Q. From the Soviet era to the Taliban regime and post 2001, how do you see the evolution and progress of Afghan Cinema?

A.     I greatly respect the work of Afghan Film in both Kabul and Jalalabad and I admire the courage of the individuals in this organization who have preserved and maintained a film culture through the worst of times.

My vision for Afghan cinema is to see it getting international success and appreciation from global audience. The reason I am continuing to support the Yellow House filmmakers is the talent and dedication all the individuals have shown. Afghanistan has a rich and ancient culture that can be shared with the world through cinema. Some of the artists and filmmakers at the Yellow House are real masterminds. The next step in my plan is to sponsor the most talented in the group to come to Australia where they can study at Film and Art schools and take what they have learnt back to Afghanistan with them.

In all these years I have worked in Afghanistan, I have never faced any threat of violence or harassment by armed opposition groups; I have only seen and experienced friendship and love

Q. Have you faced any threats from armed opposition groups in Afghanistan in all these years?

A.     In all these years I have worked in Afghanistan, I have never faced any threat of violence or harassment by armed opposition groups. I have only seen and experienced friendship and love. When talking about this work outside Afghanistan, in countries like the U.S., people tell me how brave I must be because they think I am risking my life every day. They do not want to believe me when I tell them I have never felt my life or those of our actors and crew to be at risk. Before starting my projects in Jalalabad, I was told by non-Afghans that I would be kidnapped and killed by armed groups within the first week of production and that we would never be able to work outside secure areas. In reality, we have filmed in rural and urban areas without any resistance or harassment. It would be much harder to film something in the streets of Sydney than in Jalalabad.

Q. What is the role of Cinema in promoting Peace and Tolerance in Society. Do you think this applies to a conservative society like Afghanistan?

A.     Cinema is particularly important in Afghanistan for promoting peace and tolerance as it penetrates into homes and can be viewed privately by all members of the family. Our films promote equality and education. This is done in a way that supports tradition and tries not to be confrontational to conservative values. Our scripts are all written collectively and discussed in a group called Jirga. If there is anything anyone feels to be offensive to traditional customs, we either edit it or put it differently.

I do not believe Afghanistan is ready for films which represent American or European lifestyles or morality. Our Yellow House films respect existing culture and reflect our belief. It is more important to bring change slowly than to make people irate with films that are offensive and divisive.

For me, it is the children’s films that are most important and I am very proud of our efforts to train young actors and directors at the Yellow House workshops. These kids are the future and their vision for a better Afghanistan is full of passion and hope.

Q. How do you rate the local artists in Afghanistan? How difficult is it to train and teach them?

A.     Afghanistan has always had a creative spirit that is unique and rich with genius. I believe some of the artists and filmmakers I have met can stand up with the best in the world and will be known for the greatness of their contribution in generations to come.

Q. What has been the role of the Afghan government in promoting art and cinema in Afghanistan?  

A.     Through Afghan Film, in both Kabul and Jalalabad, and the support of the various ministries responsible for the arts and film, I can see the beginning of a renaissance for Afghan cinema. At 64 years of age, when I should be retiring near a beach in Australia with my family and children, my greatest desire is to see the Yellow House collective of artists and filmmakers in Jalalabad achieve their full potential and bring Afghan culture to the world’s attention. If I can play some part in making this possible, I will be a happy old man.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2014/01/12/it-would-be-much-harder-to-film-something-in-the-streets-of-sydney-than-in-jalalabad)


About Zafar Mehdi
Maverick journalist, irreverent rebel, travel freak, cricket junkie, reluctant fundamentalist, student of life, dreamer, believer.

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