Skip to main content

Snow Monkey, four ways

During the first week of Critics Campus 2015, our critics took part in a live-editing workshop. Four of them reviewed Australian photojournalist George Gittoes’s documentary Snow Monkey, and then edited their drafts with Karl Quinn, national film editor at The Age (who is also working with our critics on their Age coverage). Read their final reviews below – and don’t forget to check out all of our Critics Campus coverage.

Review by Eloise Grills

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.

Review by Jaymes Durante

Bone-dry streets are the stomping grounds for child gangsters in Snow Monkey, a well-intentioned but shambolically executed documentary that follows a cluster of young hoodlums in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Australian director George Gittoes attempts to redeem these tykes from their seemingly inevitable criminal fates by involving them in the production of a schlocky action movie; once it’s completed, they can hawk the DVDs for a profit and gain a somewhat-sustainable living – not to mention a small measure of hope. While the activism mostly works in its favour, Snow Monkey’s exasperating length and inexplicable creative choices prove more troublesome. There are moments in which Gittoes’s own indulgences become transparently clear: messy edits, irksome titles, overbearing music choices and stunningly long diversions that add little to the stories he’s depicting, which carry their own inherent significance without these extra trimmings. It may feel journalistic rather than cinematic – like a superior episode of Foreign Correspondent with Gittoes as a hyper-involved quasi-gonzo reporter rather than a quiet observer – but regardless of these classifications, it is impossible to deny the power of its endearing characters and upsetting images.

It’s the scary and eventually amiable street kids who form the emotional spine of Snow Monkey, and they’re the most affecting when Gittoes stays out of the way and simply observes them. Their disparate gangs are united at the Yellow House, a sanctuary run by Gittoes and his partner Hellen, where music and play drown out the roar of choppers and the bustle of the filthy streets. Gittoes zeroes in on a handful of his favourites, superficially sweeping through the rampant poverty, addiction and violence they live amongst. The character that leaves the most enduring impression is Steel, a boy of hardly ten with a frightening capacity for viciousness and intimidation. A razor blade he keeps concealed between tooth and cheek points to a deeper violence, an aptitude for ugly maturity unbecoming of a boy his age. It puts a lump in your throat, and yet it speaks truthfully to the pressures placed on Afghanistan’s most vulnerable citizens.

But Snow Monkey’s exposé of Jalalabad street life can’t fully overcome the scruffiness of its pacing and editing. Also difficult to reconcile is Gittoes’s over-involvement in front of the camera, which in some cases disrespects the most valuable material – including stories of extremist violence told in some harrowing stretches of footage – with an over-authoritative Western voice. Snow Monkey is irrefutably gutting for the abject horror of what it depicts, but the narrow subjectivity of its structure prevents its director from engaging his audience on a deeper level. To make a socially conscious exposé bristling with important images so defiantly idiosyncratic seems counterintuitive to Gittoes’s admirable mission. There’s a good story here – it’s just hidden inside a far shaggier documentary waiting to be trimmed into shape.

Review by Tope Ogundare

Can play-fighting restore some semblance of innocence to those whose childhoods have been usurped by the brutalities of war? It’s a radical question that rises out of Snow Monkey, a new documentary from veteran Aussie filmmaker George Gittoes, set in the bombed-out Afghan city of Jalalabad, on the Pakistan border.

With a degree of access built on years of cultural immersion and local philanthropy, Gittoes and his crew chronicle the daily hustle of Jalalabad’s pre-teen boy gangs, some of whom happen to dig movies as much as they do selling and stealing. So Gittoes turns their roughed-up neighbourhood into an all-too-real action set, casting these watchable urchins as the stars of their own scrappy, violent B-movie. But whether or not this indulges the worst in these kids is where Snow Monkey becomes worthy of debate.

George Gittoes and Joshua Oppenheimer are kindred artistic spirits. The latter’s Indonesian-set docos The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence (MIFF, 2015) examine the therapeutic potency of re-staging and reliving long-ignored genocidal acts; while far less taut and polished than those films, Snow Monkey is more than a distant cousin. In recruiting a boy called Steel, Jalalabad’s most promising future killer, Gittoes may have stumbled upon a prophylactic counterpart to Oppenheimer’s process: prehabilitation, if you will. However unintentional this therapy-via-cinema is on Gittoes’s part, it’s uncanny to see this prematurely hardened soul faking assault and murder for the cameras and, in these fleeting moments, looking somehow like an ‘ordinary’ kid.

Admittedly, Snow Monkey is a salad of footage, an unruly blend of everything from the grainy to the crisply hi-def. This rough-hewn quality, while evocative of Jalalabad’s dangerously dynamic environment, at times lends the film an air of careless paternalism, as though it were the home-video account of a Westerner casually bringing reform and civility to a new land. Gripes aside, Snow Monkey is, at worst, a candid portrait of a socio-political epicentre. At best, it’s a notable example of filmmaking that dares to scuffle with contemporary horrors in the service of palpable change.

Review by Richard S He

Jalalabad, Afghanistan: where the homeless street kids chain-smoke compulsively. Choppers and drones drift apathetically over the scars of American occupation; everywhere else, the damage is self-inflicted. Humanity’s default state isn’t empathy – it’s resilience. Life goes on, even in the most inhospitable locations.

Snow Monkey revolves around three groups of pre-teen boys, many of whom earn for their entire families: the titular ‘Snow Monkeys’, who sell ice-cream out of carts; the ‘Ghostbusters’, who purge evil spirits by waving charcoal smoke into car windows for tips; and a violent gang of antagonists. The diminutive Steel, who leads the last, is as fascinating a figure as you’ll ever see in a documentary. Through cunning and concealed razor blades, he rules his gang, other kids – and even adults.

In the midst of all this is the eccentric George Gittoes (Soundtrack to War, Rampage) – artist, humanitarian and Australian documentary filmmaker. In the heart of Jalalabad, his Yellow House commune offers these children refuge and education, but Gittoes is most interested in playing the father figure. He is a childlike, bearded sage; Steel is his inverse – cruel yet intelligent beyond his years. Maybe a stable upbringing is all that sets them apart.

Snow Monkey is far less exploitative than you might think. Gittoes’s constant presence risks annoying the viewer, but by appearing in front of the camera he also becomes accountable for what takes place on screen. While documentaries typically film poverty from a distance, Gittoes actively contributes to his subjects’ lives. He’s not profiting from misery, nor allowing violence to happen in order to film it.

One of the film’s most uncomfortable moments sees Steel’s gang posing with weapons, staring daggers into the camera. But Gittoes isn’t goading them on – he’s play-acting with them, passing time that could have been spent doing actual harm. With a little patience, you realise none of these kids have lost their innocence entirely. With a little unconditional attention, they begin to develop a sense of self-worth. By teaching them to use the camera, Gittoes empowers them to document their own struggles. When you finally see Steel smile for the first time, it’s all been worth it.

Snow Monkey aims for immersion, but at 169 minutes its sheer length limits its desire to raise awareness. Gittoes’s philanthropy might be stronger than his filmmaking. But in a country with so little of either, is that such a bad thing?

Back to all 2015 Critics Campus reviews

Read all of our 2015 Critics Campus coverage