Can art and activism work hand-in-hand? Australian artist and director George Gittoes seems to think so. While running the Yellow House artists’ workshop in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Gittoes shot Snow Monkey, a documentary record of his relationship with the city’s kids. Intimate, expansive and shocking, Gittoes’s film is a counterpoint to the Afghanistan we’ve seen in the mass media – which we’ve been quick to forget.
The film puts us firmly on the ground, in Gittoes’s shoes. We follow him as he entangles himself with three child-gangs: the titular ‘Snow Monkeys’, who push icy-pole carts through the debris to make a meagre living; the ‘Ghostbusters’; and a third group that steals from the others, led by the mercurial Steel, a ten-year-old kingpin-in-waiting. In helping these boys see a future through making the film-within-a-film, Gittoes also thoroughly captures them within his own.
Among the many layers of the film, the most profound are those that articulate the complexity of the kids’ lives. Steel, who by day stashes razor blades like nuts in his cheeks, by twilight strolls along the river with his sweetheart, Shazia, to show her the house he plans to buy her when he grows up; Gittoes is afraid of the Pakistani Taliban one minute, and has tea with the relatively innocuous local contingent the next. We see that, in Jalalabad, the razor blade of reality can be crammed up against the cheek of dreams.
There is some alarming footage, such as when a car bombing rends Afghani men into a heap of twitching torsos, and is filmed by the steady hands of one of the boys. The harshness of this moment is vital to the film’s attempts to capture the everyday – which, in Jalalabad, unfortunately means gloom.
Gittoes is on-camera throughout, beaming through his white beard like an eccentric Santa Claus. When he takes the boys out for ice-cream, he shouts like an embarrassing uncle: “This is the best I’ve ever had!” His inclusion of himself might seem unnecessary, or forceful, but it his vision that shapes what we see; his being-there, while sometimes grating, fits within the realism of the film.
Raw and moving, this film is not just a piece of art, or activism, but a complex intertwining of the two. Snow Monkey is Gittoes’s antidote to the erasure of Afghanistan from Australian cultural memory: one that sticks you like one of Steel’s razor blades – long and hard.