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Salem Film Fest 2017

Filmmaker Spotlight: Catching up with SFF Alum George Gittoes

Posted February 27th, 2017 by jeffschmidt in Uncategorized

Screen shot 2017-02-08 at 10.00.46 AM

George Gittoes with Shazia and Steel from SNOW MONKEY

George Gittoes‘ film THE MISCREANTS OF TALIWOOD was shown at SFF 2011 and this year he returns to Salem Film Fest with SNOW MONKEY.  SFF program director Jeff Schmidt caught up with the Australian filmmaker and artist to talk about his work as a documentary filmmaker.

JS: How did you first get into filmmaking?

GG: I started making short abstract films when I was in my early 20’s in the 1970’s. Self taught, starting with super 8 and moving up to 16mm. My first film RAINBOW WAY was all shot underwater with abstract light effects created in the ocean with glass prisms suspended above. This was followed by REFINED FIRE which while still experimental had a political message against nuclear weapons and using fossil fuels. Soon I realized that short films were only watched by a special audience and largely ‘preaching to the converted’ so I made my first TV documentary TRACKS OF THE RAINBOW about urbanized aboriginal teenagers seeking to regain traditional tribal knowledge. This was followed by WARRIORS AND LAWMEN about the injustice of imposing European Law on indigenous tribal people. After cutting my teeth on Aboriginal related issues I had gained a taste for the larger audiences of TV political doc making and headed for Nicaragua in 1986 to make my first film in an International Conflict Zone, THE BULLETS OF THE POETS – (about) the contra war being fought clandestinely by agents of Ronald Reagan. My focus was on women revolutionaries, who were also poets. From that point on I have spent my life at war on a personal mission to help end war. I differ however from many doc makers with a background in journalism – mine is as an artist so  rather than straight war reportage my emphasis has always been on people finding creative solutions to bring peace.



JS: At SFF 2011, our audience was first introduced to you when we screened THE MISCREANTS OF TALIWOOD, the first film in your “What the World Needs Now” trilogy.  Can you explain what has compelled you to journey to some of the most dangerous areas of the world with your camera in hand?

GG: I grew up in Rockdale which is something of an Australia version of Ellis Island being the first place where many refugees settle when they arrive. There were only two Australian born families in my street and all our friends had escaped the violence of a Europe broken by World War II. I was born in 1949 shortly after my father returned from the war. I heard stories in many languages and began doing puppet shows for the neighborhood while still in primary school. The shows were in our backyard and the money I raised went to the Red Cross to assist refugees worldwide. I knew I was an artist from an early age but that humanist start made any art which did not have a social purpose seem empty and superficial.

I wrote to Mother Theresa in Calcutta saying I was unhappy that my skills were those of an artist and not of a doctor or engineer as I felt they could do more. She wrote back and her letter is now in our State Library. She advised me to use ‘The gifts which God has given you but use them for others…  and you will be fulfilled.”  I have followed Mother Theresa’s advice to the letter and I am now a very happy 67 year old looking back on a life where I have used my creativity to make films like SNOW MONKEY and my paintings to sell and finance projects like our Yellow House Creative Centre in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
JS: This year, we’ll be showing your most recent film SNOW MONKEY as we follow you to Jalabad, Afghanistan. What compelled you to want to tell this story?

GG: If you go back over the themes of my art and filmmaking the most consistent subject is that of innocent children caught up in the insanity of the wars that adults have brought about. Having worked in Afghanistan on and off for 20 years I felt the real victims of the unending conflict were the children. The first three child ice cream vendors I interviewed embodied the central problems of the country: Zabi had to work because his farmer father had been blinded by shot gun pellets in a raid by US forces where they had gone to the wrong house, Iran’s dad was one of many drug addicts in a country where the main cash product is opium, and Saladin’s father was a cripple due to not being inoculated for polio as a child in a country where there is no health coverage. These kids were all bright entrepreneurs having financed their own small businesses – renting carts and investing in stock to sell – making me realize they should be going to school. We helped create better paying products with them selling DVDs along with their ice creams so they could work shorter hours. Then we paid for tutors to help them pass the exams to get school entrance. Our actual films are only the tip of the iceberg with what we do. I could never be a pure documentarian recording people and events but not directly getting involved with improving their lives.

SNOW MONKEY – Shazia and Steel

JS: How did you encounter the street gang kids at the heart of the film and persuade them to be filmed?

GG: While filming  the Ice Cream sellers and the Ghostbusters who sell protective magic with their smoking cans I began to notice more shadowy presences  and realized there were predators circling. I knew the needle park where addicts go to shoot up was gangster central and I had a gypsy friend, Janat, who ran an open air cafe there. We went to Janat to find out how it worked. Janet introduced me to the amazing Steel, the half sized king of the child gangs.  I did boxing when I was younger and was surprised when Steel took my hand and examined my fists. He approved of my damaged and spread knuckles and I had instant trust. At first Steel came across as a monster and I was criticized for encouraging him by letting him say he was the star of our movie but when I met Shazia and realized there was a love story, everything I had thought about him changed.  Shania wants to steer Steel away from the gangster life and now works, with my partner Hellen ,at the Yellow House assisting with the Women’s Media workshops and Steel knocks on the gate every afternoon to walk her safely home. If I have my way, Steel could end up as my right hand man at our Yellow House. It is clear he has genius level intelligence and just needs direction. We got him IQ Intelligence tested while trying to enroll him at the school and his test results were off the chart.  He has no father  and his mother does not care how he makes his money, so long as he brings it back to her. Steel has become my responsibility and is one of the main reasons I have to keep going back to Jalalabad.

JS: I understand you are working on a new film(s) shooting in the United States, what can you tell us about this project?

GG: We are presently shooting a new film in Miami which is a sequel to the film we made 12 years ago there called RAMPAGE.  When I heard that Denzel (14 yrs old in RAMPAGE) had been shot in a gang feud and nearly died as his brother Marcus had when we were making our earlier film, I felt I had to be there for him and the family but, also, to make a film to show how violence in black neighborhoods in the US has increased to a crisis point.  We have called the film WHITE LIGHT because that is the title of the song Denzel wrote while waiting for an ambulance to arrive with two wounds from an AK47 rifle to his chest. He saw the white light of the other side and wrote about it never expecting this rap song/poem to be heard. I have Reverend Jonny Davis of the local church and many other community leaders behind this project and hope it can help the Black Lives Matter movement to gain greater empathy and support in the US.


JS: As a documentary filmmaker, what motivates and inspires you?

GG: I have had many offers to direct drama films but have always refused as I am a committed documentary maker. What I love about it is the unpredictability. It is like social sculpture – working with people who are not professional actors to make them look good and even though they are not acting I am still trying to bring out their best performances to camera no matter what the situation. To do this in times like when back in Miami 12 years ago, Marcus was killed and the family were viewing his body in an open coffin takes great sensitivity and trust. I never burn my bridges with the people I have filmed and this proven by the way my films keep going full circle and coming back. If you watch WHITE LIGHT you will see me getting a lot of big warm hugs from members of the family and members of the community. This can only happen when the people who the film is about are included in the process. The Taliban leader, Haqqani who appears in SNOW MONKEY sat down with his seven sons and watched the film and gave it his blessing. It is important to work with this level of transparency and be prepared for the criticisms that can come out of it. I played football when I was young and loved the fact that in competitive sport the result is not known until the last whistle of the referee ends the game. With documentaries it is the same level of risk – you never know if you will win or lose but it is a wonderful feeling after all the stress to know the film is ‘in the can’ and you have enough material make it work in the edit room.

JS:  As we celebrate 10 years of Salem Film Fest, what do you think is the importance of documentary film in our daily lives and society?

GG: I am about to head with my small crew of Hellen and Waqar (Yellow House cameraman) to Aleppo in Syria. This was not on our agenda one month ago but we are reacting to Donald Trump’s ban on Syrian Refugees entering the US. The inhumanity of this ban on assisting people who desperately need help indicated that it is more important than ever to show the impossible conditions peopl , especially children, are living in and have been forced to escape from.  While researching our plan to go to Aleppo I spoke to several Syrian doctors working behind the lines of fighting. In each case they showed they felt hopeless in the face of unending violence and they all said the fighting was going to go on and on and on with no hope of it stopping but that the world had begun to think it had ended and at this point each doctor began do break down and cry so many tears we had to end the skype connection. When we arrive in Aleppo  we will inject new hope. Reassuring them that there are those in the outside world who still care. This is the role of a documentary filmmaker. I cannot think of anything better to do with my life and skills.
All these stories and more are available in my recently released book BLOOD MYSTIC – published in Australia by Macmillan. It can be downloaded in the US and details are on my website GITTOES.COM.

SNOW MONKEY screens on Wednesday, March 8 at 8pm at CinemaSalem – tickets available for purchase at the CinemaSalem Box Office or online here: