Australian war-photographer, artist and filmmaker George Gittoes places himself front and center in Snow Monkey, a vivid but shapeless portrait of the street kids of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, that’s as wearying as it is initially startling. Gittoes previously chronicled rapping American soldiers serving in Iraq in 2005’s Soundtrack to War, then followed one of his freestylin’ subjects home to Brown Sub, Miami, whose mean streets he documented in 2006’s Rampage. Gittoes has since set up an artist’s compound in Jalalabad, and 2013’s Love City, Jalalabad introduced some of the local characters who reappear here. That film’s story – of empowerment through the power of art – is recycled in this sort-of-sequel, with the director recruiting local boys to star in a movie of their own making, DVDs of which they then hawk on their daily rounds selling ice cream from a kart.
These sweet young ice-cream vendors live in fear of Steel, a ten-year old hardman with the swagger, dead-eyed stare and nose for intimidation of a Lilliputian Tony Montana. With a cigarette forever dangling from the corner of his mouth, Steel is the leader of a gang of pre-pubescents who lounge around playing pool by the roadside, pausing occasionally to rob passers-by. Steel keeps a razor blade on him at all times, stored handily inside his mouth. When the gang steals the boys’ karts, Gittoes and co. – including actor Amir Shah Talash, sharing lensing duties with the director – intervene to get them back. They offer Steel a starring role as himself in their movie, which seems mostly to involve reenactments of brutality: Steel demonstrates for the camera how he burnt another boy’s face because he refused to hand over a day’s earnings, and how he uses AIDS-infected syringes to stab people, while Gittoes looks theatrically awestruck.
Vivid but more than a little self-regarding.
Steel’s crimes, remarkably, are the least of those on show in Snow Monkey, which includes video of a man’s head being sawn off – and of the head placed upright on the floor, blinking sluggishly, moments later. Excerpted too is the immediate aftermath of a bombing, captured by one of the kids, with bloodied bodies stumbling past the camera and dead ones crumpled together on the ground. Political context is not given, and most of the locals seem to blame Pakistan, close to Jalalabad’s border.
The film’s determinedly street-level focus feels less an artistic choice than willfully uncurious, however, when Gittoes receives a visit from a member of the local Taliban. The man tells the filmmaker, transparently, that the Taliban have caught wind of some threats against the Australian, and that he should be careful. What a “lovely bloke”, says Gittoes. Our frontman would perhaps be easier to stomach if he wasn’t so inescapable; he makes Nick Broomfield look positively self-effacing. After endless scenes of Gittoes buying ice-cream for street urchins, who greet him affectionately as “Baba” (roughly “Papa”), the director begins to seem like a filmmaking Fagin. His hail-fellow-well-met routine – all backslaps and Aussie affability – feels just as thickly lacquered.
This impression isn’t helped by the fact that so many scenes feel plainly ginned up. In one vignette, Steel and his lady love gaze at a beach-side mansion at dusk. One day, the boy tells her, we’ll live in a house like that. As he does so it’s hard to miss the lapel mic at his collar, soon obscured by a (belated) zoom-in. The line between the events manufactured for the sake of the boys’ film and those simply captured by Gittoes becomes ever muddier, and the formlessness of the film, which runs to almost three hours, compounds the confusion.
What through-line there is comes by way of the charismatic Steel, who emerges as sympathetic despite his brutality. When he talks of his regret that his parents took him out of school to earn money, and his frustration that his brothers were sent instead, despite regularly wagging (“idiots”), there’s a glimmer of the thesis a more focused film could have elaborated upon powerfully. As it is, Gittoes – the winner of this year’s Sydney Peace Prize, following in the footsteps of the likes of Desmond Tutu and Noam Chomsky – seems both too committed, and not enough.
Production Companies: Gittoes Films, Unicorn Films, Screen Australia
Writer/Director: George Gittoes
Producers: George Gittoes, Lizzette Atkins
Executive Producers: Torstein Grude, Bjarte Morner Tveit
Directors of Photography: Waqar Alam Amir Shah Talash, George Gittoes
Editor: Nick Myers
Associate Editor: Kenny Ang
Sound Mixer: David White
Sound Editor: Serge Stanley
Music by: Hellen Rose, Hugo Race, Mick Harvey, Daniel Tucerri, Brian Hooper, Kim Salmon, Anna McInerney, Julitha Ryan
No rating, 169 minutes