Van Gogh meets Jalalabad in the IDFA documentary Snow Monkey

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With the International Documentary Film festival Amsterdam, (IDFA), in full swing and industry people roaming the Dutch capital’s streets, there is no denying that documentaries are a hot topic. Especially in times like these they help shape our view of this crazy world. A crazy world in and of itself is portrayed in the beautifully crafted Snow Monkey, a three-hour peek into the dog-eat-dog world of Jalalabad, Afghanistan just one year after the withdrawal of US and NATO forces.

Sitting comfortably in a Muntplein café with Australian artist and director George Gittoes and his lovely wife, Hellen Rose, while being served tea seems such a huge contrast to their life in the eastern Afghan city they live in several months out of the year. Snow Monkey follows Gittoes as he tries running an art workshop called The Yellow House. Vincent van Gogh set up an artist community in a yellow house in Arles, France over 125 years ago with the idea that a group of artists together can do more than one alone. Sadly, his idea never evolved much further than him and Gauguin setting up shop, but in Jalalabad it certainly seems to work. The movie shows how Gittoes and Rose run a film school from their beloved Yellow House, a safe haven where men, women and children can briefly escape by learning art, music and filmmaking. This seems a very naive and hippie-like endeavor in a city where killer drones roam the skies and the Taliban keep a close eye on life, but the couple know exactly what they are doing. He likes to achieve an impression that scenes naturally occur the way we see it, Gittoes says of the free-flowing, nonchalant style his movie radiates.

“Once we found our main characters –the three young ice cream sellers who call themselves snow monkeys- we set out to find more people around them to portray the many sides of the city. After finding a young group of gangsters, lead by a fierce young boy called Steel –because he carries razorblades around like a cellphone and won’t hesitate to use them- we then discovered this young gangster has a beautiful and smart girlfriend,” Gittoes describes, keenly providing insight into how his storylines develop. “She hopes one day he will quit his gangster life and marry her. Once we had the romance story, I knew we had a film. From there on we plotted our scenes and the film evolved,” he says. One scene in the film takes the audience along with a man, afflicted with polio, who spends most of his life crawling through the dirty streets until he settles on the pavement and simply begs. His son, one of the snow monkeys, takes care of him. The love and affection between the two is heartwarming and emphasizes the human side of this harsh life. Seeing the disabled man crossing the busy road makes the audience gasp in amazement that he is not run over time and time again. It is oddly similar to shots of Gittoes maneuvering Jalalabad with a natural ease and loving approach to everyone he meets, including Taliban leaders and gangster boys carrying knives. Watching him walking the streets on screen raises immediate concern for his safety. “Well, I am also a kind of mystic,” he answers. “I once spoke to a security expert. He was a consultant on government level and he told me the way I go about it is just right,” he comments. He then tells of being arrested by Taliban members who planned to kill him in a courtyard, but instead of fearing for his life he acted as though he was legitimately visiting their home. ”I mentioned calmly to the man in charge that I never had seen a picture of him with all of his sons. And before you know it, I was taking a family portrait. His wife came out and gave me some soup and so I shifted from hostage to guest.” As the big feast with the family ended, the Taliban members apologized for their ill intentions. “We all looked at the chopping board in the courtyard- and [they] wished me luck with picking up my peace prize, something I was about to do soon after,” he remarks. “I felt totally calm from the moment they arrested me.” It is probably the reason he is able to sit in Amsterdam and tell his story.

Snow Monkey is the third part of the trilogy, What the World Needs Now! It is preceded by Miscreants of Taliwood (2008) and Love City Jalalabad (2013). Gittoes explains he has no real expectations for the film. “I want to prove that art is stronger than war, to give these unique children of Jalalabad a voice and show that Islam is more than just Isis. By talking to people like you,” he says pointing to this reporter, “I want to show that Paris is not the world. It is an important message and I can’t do enough to expose all sides of the story.” He continues to say that film screenings and cocktail parties at the UN do not have the same impact as inspiring artists on the ground to “spread the love.” After speaking at several art schools around the world, similar projects popped up in countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It makes a difference and gives hope at a time when listening to governments and their policies often makes people sad and hopeless, he adds. The film depicts how George changes the life of many people, but there are also scenes where the audience just watches the characters in their harsh, everyday lives. Gittoes always portrays his characters as strong and persistent, but the lingering question is if he is not tempted sometimes to step in and help. In the film, the disabled man says he hopes God will one day grant him a wheelchair. When asked if Gittoes later gave him one, he delivers a resolute, “No.” He feels it would be wrong to do so. “I help them in ways that gets them started. I help them to float and not sink; the rest they do themselves. The Yellow House is very strong and run by locals now. If I’d die right now, I know it would carry on.” Snow Monkey will be screened in Tuschinski 1 at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, at Pathe de Munt on Thursday at 6 p.m., and at the EYE film museum on Saturday at 10 p.m. Tickets website. All screenings are followed by a Q&A session with director George Gittoes.

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