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FILMMAKER SPOTLIGHT: George Gittoes, Director of WHITE LIGHT

October 29, 2019

George Gittoes is an Australian painter, photographer and filmmaker – for nearly 40 years, he has documented areas of conflict around the world, immersing himself in countries such as Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan and creating unique art with members of the community. His latest film WHITE LIGHT focuses on Englewood, South Side Chicago, an area known for gun violence. Interviewing friends and family, Gittoes documents the victims and their neighborhood. In doing so, he explores why these civilian deaths are happening and highlights the ways the community is working to bring peace and end the cycle of revenge and retaliation.

Salem Film Fest and the Peabody Essex Museum are presenting a FREE screening of WHITE LIGHT this Saturday, November 2 at 2pm – FREE tickets may be reserved online here or picked up in person at PEM.

SFF Selection Committee member Shelley Sackett spoke with Gittoes ahead of the screening.

Shelley Sackett: Why did you choose to focus on Englewood?

George Gittoes: Englewood is the area which people refer to as Chi-Raq. Since I made SOUNDTRACK TO WAR in Iraq, I felt it was my duty to make a comparable film in the US.  When in Baghdad, I visited the Gangster Palace of Saddam’s son Uday where I filmed a rap battle in what the US soldiers called the “bull ring”. Two of the most talented rappers were Elliot Lovett, who is African American from Miami, and Yonas Hagos, who is Ethiopian-born but from Chicago.  I felt that they were both geniuses, and offered to speak to their officers to see if they could be sent out on fewer combat missions. I was worried that the world would lose two very special artists and poets if they were killed.   Elliot laughed and said, “But George, it is more dangerous for me in Brown Sub, Miami.” Then Yonas countered this claim, saying, “Chicago is much more dangerous than Miami.”

I followed Elliot back to Miami and made RAMPAGE and Yonas never stopped criticizing me for this. He insisted I do Chicago.  Yonas is now a very successful millionaire and businessman, and his wife will not let him go back into the Southside of Chicago, as she fears for his life. But Yonas was the first person I met when arriving in Chicago, and he told me I should focus on Englewood. Yonas was embarrassed that he could not come with us to film, and warned that I would need a bodyguard with “a license to carry.” He also told me I would not be able to live there, but would have to transit in and out to film.  I took his advice on Englewood but did not get a bodyguard. We rented two apartments in the heart of the community.

SS: How did Englewood compare to other war zones you’ve covered? Did you feel less or more safe? Why?

GG: The constant danger in Englewood is more exhausting and pressured than in most of the war zones I have worked in. Usually, it is possible to find somewhere safe to sleep and repair – even in Baghdad, at the height of the war, I felt my apartment was something of a sanctuary. Police broke into my apartment four times while I was in Englewood. There was also the problem that where we were living was Gangster Disciple Territory, and our film was mainly shot with members of their rival gang, the Black Stones.  I had to make an agreement with the local Gangster Disciples to allow passage of Black Stone members to visit safely.  I also had a strategy of having my morning cup of tea and afternoon shot of vodka on the corner where the local drug gang did their business. As a result, the people around us felt we had become part of the community and were friendly, but there was always the chance that while outside we could get caught up in the crossfire of a drive by or street shoot out. We never once thought we had become or were targets.

SS: Sprinkled throughout the film, you include many shots of yourself Either shooting or reacting. Why?

GG: Why shouldn’t I be seen in the film?  While I understand that your question is innocent and without malice, I do not understand the kind of limitations that are starting to be placed on doc makers. I am guessing that the people who are teaching documentary making must be like missionaries of some strange undeclared religion that promotes a kind of documentary makers Ten Commandments of ‘do and don’ts’. As a visual artist who grew up with Cubism and Dada, I find the kind of restrictions that are placed on documentary makers ridiculous.

In my opinion, the person making the film and the cameras that are being used are part of the reality of what is going on. To edit the filmmaking presence out of the final film has always seemed dishonest to me. We are not ‘flies on the wall’, but humans who are affecting the situation around us, and that is the truth of it. Every time I do a Q & A after any of my films have been screened, I always get the same formula questions. I can only guess that these purist views are coming from students who have been indoctrinated by a set of rules and principles which are totally artificial. The question about being in the film is typical and worries me that it is a symptom of a kind of religious fanaticism that is taking over the once liberated field of documentary making.

There should not be any restrictions on the way documentary makers create their films – our job is to break the rules and not follow them. The one thing I believe in the most passionately is freedom of expression, which includes the artistic freedom to create using intuition and without rules. In Communist China, the State is using facial recognition and a point reward and punishment system to reduce the freedom of individuals, while in America there is something happening where rules of political correctness are attacking the individual freedom of artists.

SS: How did you establish your first toehold with the locals?

GG: It only took about 15 minutes to gain the trust each of the people in the film. In a dangerous environment, like Englewood, everyone has learned that they have to be able to figure people out very quickly. Their lives can depend on being able to make fast judgements of people.  My first interview was with Solja in his apartment. I was the first white person to ever come into his living room. Solja and his friends only know about white people through watching them on TV and in movies. They have only ever physically met them other than in the form of white cops. In the 12 months we were filming, we never saw another white person except the police and Pastor Pfleger.  Within 15 minutes, we were filming Solja and his friends, and these were some of the most engaging conversations in the final film.

We are still friends with all those people filmed in Solja’s room, and have taken the film to them at all stages for them to give feedback. I explained that the film would be a platform for them to speak out about the things they felt needed to be said but were never discussed in the media. I have always believed that to show fear of someone is a kind of insult.  If you are showing fear, this is read as, “this person thinks I am scary and bad because they are nervous in my presence.” To be calm, comfortable and relaxed with people is the best way to show you are no threat and are not judging them.

SS: What steps did you take to protect yourself and your crew? How did this differ from other places you’ve filmed?

GG: Everyone who has seen me working in dangerous situations observes that I use the “hug factor.” I show love to everyone I meet and let them know I appreciate their situation, and would never judge them. That is our protection.

There are only two crew members filming, myself and Waqar Alam. We film all situations with two cameras, simultaneously. Waqar is from the Tribal Belt of Pakistan, and has been my film partner for 12 years. We both have the same trusting approach, and both know how to show full respect to those in front of our cameras unless, of course, we are filming cops or military in situations where we do not have approval to film.

I often compare what I do for protection to the ‘force field’ that the Starship Enterprise puts around itself in the Science Fiction series, “Star Trek.”  I believe in magic and feel that it is possible to create a ‘force field’ of protection around those I am working with. Making and sustaining this kind of ‘force field’ takes a lot of energy, so it is important never to go into dangerous situations when unwell or at an emotionally low point.

SS: In the film, one subject says, “The Chicago police is the biggest gang in Chicago,” and the scene where the police ask you for your permit was full of tension. How did you feel? Can you compare that vulnerability to how you felt when riding around with some of the gang members? (i.e. which was scarier, potential police or gang violence?)

GG: We never felt scared with anyone in the Englewood Community. The May Block group do not like to be referred to as a ‘gang’ – there is a sensitivity to the words ‘gang’ and ‘gangbangers’. ‘Gangbanger’ has become as much of a negative issue in the Englewood community as using the ‘n’ word.  They resent the way that everyone in their community are referred to in a racist and derogatory way as ‘gangbangers’ by what they see as White America.

We approached the police media department and office of Superintendent Eddie Johnson on several occasions, but were refused access and cooperation. Bottom line— the police have good reason to hate cameras. They are antagonistic to being filmed, and this defensive posture has increased since the success of the Black Lives Matter campaign and the release of videos showing police shooting unarmed people of color.

SS: What do you hope audiences take away from this film?

GG: It is time for America to reform its gun laws and stop being hypocritical about what is happening in other countries while something as terrible as what WHITE LIGHT documents is going on in its own backyard.  People should leave the film wanting to help bring about change to segregation, urban poverty and gun violence. We are cooperating with local groups in Englewood, like Bullets for Peace, and doing community discussion screenings of WHITE LIGHT. Our film was designed as a tool to be used to help bring positive change, and we are delighted to see the enthusiastic way this is coming about.

SS: Have you thought about setting up something like the Jalalabad Yellow House (an arts and community center featured in SNOW MONKEY) in Southside? Why or why not?

GG: We have set up a temporary Chicago Yellow House that coincided with the period of filming. It has lasted two years and is getting stronger. The large multi-panel painting created at the Chicago Yellow House as a collaboration between myself and local artists has been acquired by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and recognition is coming to many of the young artists and musicians who have participated in our activities.  We are presently trying to get support for renovating the Forum Theatre in Bronzeville as an arts center. Bronzeville is a well-established neutral zone where rival groups of people can meet without the fear of attack. It is similar to Switzerland during WWII. A lot of progress is being made with realizing this dream, and we are on our way back to Chicago to take this to the next phase.

SS: How do you see the future for young doc makers who are just starting out?

GG: Of  all the mediums I work in —painting, performance art, music, drama and photography—a wonderful kind of  liberation has  never stopped, which means the mediums get freer and freer every year that passes. But with documentary filmmaking, the medium keeps slipping back to old attitudes towards creative freedom that should have disappeared in the early twentieth century. If documentary filmmaking is ever going to be seen as an art form, the way its sister medium of drama filmmaking is, then these restrictive dogmas about how a doc should be made need to go.
The problem is the that fanatical and Inquisitional people who want  to enforce laws and rules in the medium are making advances on stealing away our artistic freedoms. This is so negative, it would be impossible for any doc maker to please them. No documentary would ever qualify to be accepted by their standards. I worry for young and new-to-the medium documentary makers, as these restrictions on their freedom must be incredibly inhibiting.

These purists are damaging the doc medium in ways that could be irreparable, unless people begin to see the foolishness of what they demand and begin a revolution to free the medium and  allow  it  to find itself and begin to develop like all the other art forms. The tragedy is that the most idealistic people are attracted to documentary making because they want to make a difference and help the world and humanity to end many of the serious problems that youth are facing. Then, they come up against the frustrating and illogical world of the documentary rule makers. Many of those I speak with are so confused, they want to give up on documentaries and work in another medium.

FREE Tickets for WHITE LIGHT may be reserved online here or picked up in person at PEM.

A Q&A with Director Director George Gittoes, Producer Hellen Rose and special guests will take place following the screening..

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