Film and TV

George Gittoes, Witness To War

In the middle of our conversation with George Gittoes, Art Attack is struck with a fierce sense of inspiration. The Australian artist is relating story after story from his works in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he's just finished five new films, and it's hard to imagine that anyone could leave this chat feeling uninspired.

While the majority of the space at Station Museum is dedicated to Gittoes' massive, gruesome paintings and his extensive set of personal sketchbooks-cum-diaries that cover his decades of living in conflict zones, it's a fake DVD shop that catches our eye. Within the walls of gory details sits a bright false storefront, plastered in posters for Gittoes recent films. We inquire about the little room, and he immediately begins to describe his project that is revitalizing the Pashtun cinema culture. Despite the large canvases hanging around us, it's this segment of work of which Gittoes seems most excited to discuss.

"I've been making these movies for quite a while. It's an interesting experience," he states. Interesting might be an understatement, but it's one of those terms that we are apt to use when more accurate words seem hard to find. When he moved to Pakistan, Gittoes originally set out to make another in his string of documentaries, the eventual The Miscreants Of Taliwood, about the cinematic culture of Peshawar. While shooting the documentary, he was approached and agreed to produce two films, for the grand sum of seven thousand dollars. Now he stands here in a Houston gallery as the biggest producer of Pashtun films in Afghanistan - "the first time I've been able to speak English with natives in nine months, so I'm talking everyone's ears off," he apologizes.

In this trailer for Miscreants, at 2:15, there's a man who cocks a handgun and points it straight at George, so naturally, we ask what happened at that moment. "He actually pulled the trigger, and he had a misfire or I wouldn't be here," Gittoes admits.

As for what's in his mind at that moment, he replies, "Simple: have I got it on film? If he put a bullet through my head, I wouldn't be there. If there's a misfire I think, 'Fuck, was the camera rolling?' In a situation like that you can get mixed up and put it on standby instead of record." To Gittoes, it's not that death doesn't matter, but rather whether he'll have the story to tell.

"I'm a bridge builder," he explains. "The Pashti film industry is more important in Pakistan than any other film industry in the world, because Pashtun is not a written language. Only two percent of people are literate... Even if (films) have Pashti subtitles, they couldn't read the Arabic."

For Gittoes, this literacy problem becomes tremendous fuel to create. "If there's going to be modernization and new sets of values towards women, the film industry is the best way to do it," he clarifies. "Women are not allowed outside, and even when you come into the house you can't meet the women... They're the main audience for these movies, and so movies that educate them to the possibility of women being liberated, getting an education, etc."

It provides the filmmaker with an unique drive and opportunity, as he casts female leads - groundbreaking because actresses are forbidden by the Taliban - and employs themes of empowerment and growing equality. One of his new films features a woman who decides to host a talk show: "She gets attacked in all sorts of ways, and she uses her talk show to fight back instead of using weapons," Gittoes reveals. "Another one, a woman decides to have a love dedication radio show - and this is a culture where you're not allowed to fall in love, it's all arranged marriages. So that's hugely controversial as well. In a society where romance is so restricted, everyone has a secret deadly love story to tell - so people love them."

It's hardly all fun and filmmaking, however, as he informs us that of the four DVD stores that were in Jalalabad when he arrived five years ago, only one is left. "They've all been blown up since," he sighs. "Except for one, it's on the second floor and it's hard to get at, so it's harder to blow up."

What's worse to Gittoes, though, is a predicament slightly more obscure. As the United States wages its War On Terror, blocks of local programming are bought up so that American-made propaganda and infomercials can be run. That leaves the television stations reluctant and unwilling to show movies like his, unless the filmmakers pay for it.

"So you've got all these professionals - filmmakers, artists, actors, musicians, that rely on the film industry - and it's an insult," he laments. "We've fought the Taliban to make these films, now we have to fight the American influence to get them screened."

"It's kind of like Avatar," he surmises, "the Americans are there with all these giant vehicles, and the locals have their delicate little ecology of culture, like the movies. And the (Americans) are doing all these blundering stupid things to destroy it."

In addition to these struggles, some actors have been harassed by American forces who were acting on false intelligence. Gittoes tells a story of one, "Marshook, he's like the Brad Pitt of those movies," Gittoes relates, had his home raided by Special Forces in the middle of the night, tied up, interrogated and tortured, despite his pro-American stance.

"If the people who are feeding the information are also linked to ISI and Pakistani intelligence, whatever - it's a pretty good agenda, to get paid by the Americans and fuck up the American cause. That's the only conclusion I can make," George laments. "I saw it in Iraq as well, the Al-Qaeda would put IEDs in streets where the people were pro-American, and then the Americans would come in with tanks and demolish the neighborhood in retaliation. It's a pretty good strategy."

He says that the young people are seeking a progressive, democratic change - much like the recent revolutions in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. "They aren't dressed in old traditional clothes, it looks like Paris or New York," he explains. "They want to see a new, modern Afghanistan, which would be like America. You would think that's what America would want, but no one's talking to (the young people). They're only talking to the fucking corrupt leaders, like Karzai, and the Taliban."

At 61, Gittoes has covered nearly every conflict since Vietnam as artist, filmmaker and photographer. His large pieces are testament to the atrocities he's seen, tales of severed limbs and soldiers that stepped on IEDs - a seemingly "more real" way to depict the events than photographs can capture. "Soldiers will tell me, 'That's it. That's what it felt like,'" he says. But his work belies a strange hope beneath the shocking scenes.

"My opinion at 61... is that the only way to stop war is to dissolve this myth that you can kill for your country and you're spiritually and psychologically immune because you've been doing it out of patriotism. My experience is that every soldier is told that myth. Then the first person you kill, you find out once you kill someone, you've killed part of yourself."

"So I think cultures around the world have got to get over the idea that you can solve anything by killing people; it's just morally wrong," explains the artist.

"I did this radio show last night (on KPFT)," he tells us, "and this young (caller) said, 'I'm a creative person; I'd love to do what you do, but how do you learn how to do it?'"

"There's a lot of people, particularly in America, who'd love to be doing this kind of thing, using their creative talents to make a differences. But there's the Army out there training people to kill, but there's no one training people to go out and create." We ask I he believes it's something that can actually be taught, or if it simply must be done. Gittoes answers "No."

"But I think people like me could mentor others and teach them a lot of stuff," he continues, "because no government's going to employ people like me to teach people how to go out there and subvert government."

He calls America's youth, "the most brainwashed people on the planet," a transformation that he declares has happened slowly. This, he says, is based partly out of a fear to do anything self-motivated and partly to blame on post-modern philosophers "who teach a kind of strange, twisted morality, where it seems that any kind of intervention is seen as wrong."

He clarifies that last bit, explaining "when I show one of my films, people are saying, 'Well, aren't you risking the lives of these people...' or 'Isn't it wrong to go in there and intervene in a culture, bringing your skills? Shouldn't they be doing it themselves?' - all these kind of arguments that for me to go in there is like me being a colonialist. They'll attack me for actually doing something," he states with a sigh.

"These wars are not won with bullets; they're won by people with media and communications skills, like you've got," Gittoes reveals with a fervor. "You could make a real difference. Look what I've done - one person with a little bit of money from a European NGO, and we've recreated the film industry there, with 40 creative people working with me immediately. We're getting films out that are changing women's attitudes, on no budget - and that's just me."

He continues, citing the lack of a music studio in Jalalabad - the Taliban have blown up these as well. "So if you just had some young people," Gittoes exclaims, "who went to Jalalabad with some basic sound recording equipment, rented a place, got someone to help cover the costs - that would become a center. All the musicians would gather; it would help restore them from the harm the Taliban have done."

As he talks, we can barely control the voice in our chest screaming, "leave it all and go do it!"

"It's just a tiny little thing" Gittoes speaks, declaring "I could think of hundreds of things which people with arts-related degrees and media qualifications could do to transform that country. That would make a much bigger difference than going in with Predators and blowing people up. That would rejuvenate the economy and create positive employment for people who then wouldn't want to become suicide bombers."

"You've got the most suppressed, numbed down, de-radicalized youth in all of the world, and yet you've got all this freedom. I just don't understand it," he echoes, seemingly a challenge to all of us.

George Gittoes: Witness To War opens Saturday, April 16, with a reception from 7 to 10 p.m., and will remain on display through July 17 at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, 1502 Alabama. For information call 713-529-6900. The exhibit contains graphic material that may not be suitable for children.

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Marc Brubaker
Contact: Marc Brubaker