In Conversation

George Gittoes WITH DAVID LEVI STRAUSS


Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

On the occasion of the pending release of his new film The Miscreants of Taliwood, artist and filmmaker George Gittoes, while visiting New York, sat down with David Levi Strauss at his High Falls home in upstate New York to talk about war, sex, religion, politics, lightness and darkness, and the impetus behind his films and his art.

DAVID LEVI STRAUSS (RAIL): In May 2004, I was sitting in Leon Golub’s studio talking with him about the just-released images from Abu Ghraib, and Leon said he wanted to show me a new film that an Australian friend of his named George Gittoes had made. In Soundtrack to War, you wandered around the war in Iraq, talking with U.S. troops. Your first question was always “What are you listening to?” and it turned out they were all listening to something, and wanted very much to talk about it. After they talked about the music they were listening to, and sometimes making themselves, they began to talk about everything else, and to say some astonishing things about what was really going on in Iraq. As it later turned out, this was the first in a trilogy of films about the fallout of 9/11.

GEORGE GITTOES: Yes, I was in Afghanistan around the time 9/11 happened, and then I came to New York and saw America’s build-up to war, and I thought, well, I’ve got access to these places and I know the background, I really should be there, on the front lines. So I started making Soundtrack to War, in Iraq. I was there under Saddam when the American forces first came in. One day, one of the soldiers I got to know, a man named Elliot Lovett, who had been on more than 200 combat missions, turned to me and said, “George, if you think Iraq is dangerous, you ought to see Miami.” And I thought, Miami? That’s Jeb Bush’s Miami, right? So I went back with Elliot to Miami and made a film called Rampage, about Elliot and his family coping with the aftermath. And he was right, in some ways it was more dangerous back home than in Iraq. Elliot’s brother was murdered while we were making the film.

Gittoes and movie culture in Peshawar. Photo: Waqir Alam

When I was in Iraq, I discovered very quickly that in every group of soldiers, you had at least one musician with talent, and that’s what’s in Soundtrack to War. Elliot was like a Picasso with words. I loved the way he could rap and carve up the landscape. So you’re in a humvee in Baghdad and you’ve got these musicians and they’ve written some rap songs, and as you’re going along they’re rapping, and suddenly you’re not in Baghdad anymore. You’re in a sculptured landscape they are creating with words and music, like rap is a form of sculpture. It might be words but it’s making images in your head. Tupac was a great master of this. So was Biggie Smalls.

RAIL: Why were you able to move around so freely in Iraq?

GITTOES: Well, because I’ve spent the last 30 years in combat zones: Cambodia, Nicaragua, Congo, South Africa, Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Tibet, Mozambique. I’ve got a knack for staying alive in hostile situations.

RAIL: Why do you know so much about Pakistan and Afghanistan?

GITTOES: My background is that I spent many years helping with landmine awareness and victim support programs and was the first to identify the problem in the Tribal Belt, which had been carpet-bombed with Russian anti-personnel mines. No one else had gone into the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan to document the landmines. People weren’t aware that there was a mines problem there, but I went in and used my camera and drawing pen to document the human tragedy that followed the Russian withdrawal. Then I did an exhibition at the United Nations in Geneva and helped get NGOs like Handicap International involved. I also helped create the NGO called SPADO, the Sustainable Peace and Development Organization, with my friend Raza Shah Khan. One day a few years ago, Raza told me that one of the worst things the Pakistani Taliban was doing was trying to destroy all the arts, particularly film. I mean, obviously that wasn’t the worst thing they were doing, but it was symptomatic, this repression of the imagination and every kind of art, and Raza is someone who thinks that’s important. He’s got poets in his family, and his father-in-law is a Sufi.

RAIL: Is there a film culture in Pakistan?

Send them to the chicken coop! Photo: George Gittoes

GITTOES: I was there when it began. What was interesting about it was that it was full of exuberance because it was made by amateurs, not people who had been to film school, and it was made, really, for some of the poorest people in the Tribal Belt. Only two percent of the population there is literate, so they can’t watch American or even Indian movies, because they can’t read the subtitles, even if there are subtitles. But suddenly the Chinese started producing and selling these $15 DVD players that can run on a generator in the most remote areas, and villages started setting up these impromptu theaters to show films. And people began to make local films to feed this new market. It’s not Hollywood and it’s not Bollywood, it’s Taliwood, in the land of the Taliban.

There are a number of producers in Pakistan like Ishfaq, who is featured in my film, who are real film connoisseurs. Ishfaq can talk your ear off about Godard and all the great filmmakers back to Chaplin. He knows every film ever made. And these guys realized that they could create an industry by funding small-budget local Pashto films. Actors who had previously been laborers, emerged and learned as they went along. Great poets were coming in to help out on the scripts. Sufi musicians created the soundtracks. Editors learned how to edit using cheap pirated software, and some of them have now edited 200 films. I saw all this happening, and I loved it. It was like Hollywood in its early days.

RAIL: Were people getting paid at that point?

Actress Kireen, Pashtun movie star. Photo: George Gittoes

GITTOES: Yeah, they got paid something. It doesn’t seem like much to us, but it was actually a lot of money in a country where people earn like a dollar a week. The main thing is that it brought a lot of happiness to the people. These films might look crazy and campy to us, but they actually deal with some very serious subjects. The one I was making with Tariq Jamal that was closed down was called Family, and it was about the insanity of these ongoing feuds where everyone eventually kills everyone else and the only thing left is the land, and what good is land if everyone is dead? There are three kinds of film made in Taliwood: comedies, traditional dramas, and action adventures.

If you have an illiterate population that has never experienced any kind of film before, they are not going to understand Hollywood films. They wouldn’t understand a film like The Devil Wears Prada because it’s so culturally coded, and even the way films like that are cut and edited make them illegible there. Even if it was in Pashto, they wouldn’t understand it. So the films that are being made locally are more like those made in the early days of cinema. The dialogue is almost superfluous. If someone is angry, they shake their fist and show their teeth. Everything is over-acted. People die extravagantly.

RAIL: But you’re coming in from the outside. How did you enter the scene?

Pashtun Action Hero - Javed Musazai. Photo: George Gittoes

GITTOES: My way of starting was to take part in a tele-movie, a locally made cable TV thing. These are not Pashtun movies, they’re little TV things, and this one was called Street Crime: The Series. When I got there, they were about to make a film about Daniel Pearl. Well, it didn’t have to be Daniel Pearl, but it had to be a Westerner being kidnapped and so on. So I offered to play the role of the Westerner, and I appeared in this TV movie as Daniel Pearl. That was my in. To this day, a lot of people still think I’m a Pashtun actor doing an American accent.

RAIL: So this was the beginning of The Miscreants?

GITTOES: Yes. As we were shooting the TV movie, I heard that the Red Mosque in Islamabad had been surrounded and was under siege. So I dropped everything and went immediately up to Islamabad, and in that period many DVD stores selling these films and music stores were being blown up. The Miscreants begins with the Taliban burning DVDs and CDs on the street in front of the Red Mosque.

RAIL: After the Daniel Pearl TV movie, you wanted to make your first Pashtun film with the biggest star in the business, Javed Musazai. Was Javed a star in the action adventure genre?

GITTOES: He was in everything: action, drama, comedies. He’s like the George Clooney or Brad Pitt of Pashtun cinema. There are not many stars, only four or five, and I ended up using all of them, which didn’t work out so well, because one of the other big stars I worked with became terrified of appearing in the film and I had to cut him out. I was actually making three films at once: an action film with Javed, a comedy with this other actor, and the documentary. But I lost the comedy and all of the interviews for the documentary when he wanted out. I made it very clear from the beginning to all the actors that if they felt this was too dangerous (and obviously it was dangerous to work with me and appear in a documentary attacking the Taliban), even up to the last minute I’d take them out of the film, with no hard feelings.

RAIL: You also had a big female star in your films, the famous No-No.

GITTOES: In the Pashtun culture, it’s almost impossible to get women to act because they’re not allowed to do anything on their own. Normal women would never be allowed to act in films. So in order to have women in these Pashtun movies, they immediately hire prostitutes. They’re not street prostitutes; they’re more like Japanese geisha. And No-No is the best. Now she’s made a name for herself as a comedienne. Everyone jokes that No-No—it’s actually n, u—n, u, and does mean “no, no,” but everyone jokes that it really means, “yes, yes.” No-No is the great Pashtun beauty. She is the Marilyn Monroe of the Pashtuns. She’s a great singer and dancer, but she’s also a very professional hooker.

RAIL: And a porn star.

GITTOES: Yeah, well, I didn’t know about the porn star part, and that created another very big problem. In the middle of our filming, No-No slipped off to Dubai and the next thing we knew, she had appeared in a porno film there, thinking that no one back home would know about it, but when she returned, the porn film was playing on every cell phone in Pakistan. The Taliban immediately put out a jihad against her. Fortunately for us, we’d pretty well finished filming with her. I actually did one more scene with her, which was pretty dangerous. Then she went underground.

Because she is such a very brave girl, I don’t want to put a smear on her for being a courtesan. Elizabethan actresses were, too. No-No is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. She believes in film and dance and women’s rights. After she was banned she immediately retaliated by putting out a music CD called “Madame’s Hits.” Every man who had seen her in the porn film wanted it, so it was a big hit.

Another woman in my film, Kireen, who is a young mother and a widow, is not a prostitute and we make that very clear in the film. In fact, she hates the whole profession of acting. It was kind of funny when we showed this film at Telluride and Kireen says, “I don’t want my daughters to grow up to be actresses.”

RAIL: Javed is tremendous in the film.

GITTOES: I grew to love Javed. I played his brother in the drama we were filming, but we are real brothers now. We regard ourselves as one family. To be completely honest, everything I’m doing now, going back to Pakistan to make more films, is mainly for Javed and his family. There are a lot of intellectual and artistic and humanitarian reasons for me to raise the money to do these next three films, but if it wasn’t for my concern for Javed, and getting all of his children fed, and getting the film industry going again, I wouldn’t do it. Then again, that’s a huge responsibility, because I could also get Javed killed.

RAIL: Something I didn’t understand at all when I first met you, because I haven’t spent time in Pakistan and Afghanistan, is that you can actually pass for Pashtun, when you grow your hair and beard long, wear traditional dress, and speak fluent Pashto. I wouldn’t have thought that, but seeing Javed and you together, it’s clear that you actually could be brothers.

GITTOES: His actual brothers look so much like me that I joke with them that when my mother sees the film, she’ll know what my father was doing in Pakistan.

RAIL: [Laughs] So that’s why all of this can happen, and how you can get away with this.

GITTOES: That’s not the main reason it can happen. The main reason is that I’ve been working in the region since well before this current conflict with America, so even the Taliban know that I predate the problem, and that I can be trusted, to a degree. And I’ve got this massive network over the whole Tribal Belt of people who care about me. To kill me would bring a lot of hate down on whoever did it, even if it was a terrorist organization. It’s the same with Javed. When he was kidnapped by the Taliban, his brothers—not the police, not the army—surrounded the place where they were holding him and forced them to let him go. He’s got a huge tribe behind him and the Taliban realized that if they killed Javed, pretty soon there’d be a few thousand people against them. So they released him. I’ve got quite a bit of pull as well. There was one point when I was in a taxi with a couple of militant kidnappers, the type who would have taken Daniel Pearl, and I just started telling them about all my contacts, particularly at the university. That’s why they let me go and apologized for taking me.

Don’t get the idea that I hide. We’re out there in their faces. We defied them when we made those first three films. The brazenness of this protects us. You know, the Taliban actually came to us when we were filming in the mountains and said “You can’t do this because there are predator drones flying around everywhere trying to kill us and they’ll think that you’re one of us and we don’t want you to be killed on our turf. We don’t want to be responsible.” So I gave them a few thousand rupees (a couple of hundred bucks) to let us stay. You see me do it in the film. Even though the Taliban is against the film industry, there’s something about the open and honest way we did this that allowed us to get away with it.

RAIL: You know, when they asked Picasso to design camouflage uniforms for the airborne troops in World War II, he said “Dress them as harlequins.” This seems kind of like that, and you can see it in the film. You’re so out there, so brazen, that no one can believe you’re actually doing it.

GITTOES: Everyone there knows that I’m prepared to take the same risks as them. However, I would never take an American with me, or another Australian, or a German, or whatever, because they’d be killed within the first 24 hours. That’s how dangerous it is. I’ve become acclimatized. I can live on Mars, but no one else can. When I’m there and I have to go out and buy fresh water, I go out on my own. Normally, if you’re a foreigner, you can’t do that. You’d be captured and killed. There are no NGOs in the tribal belt anymore, because the Taliban have targeted them just like they have the filmmakers. They’ve even targeted Red Cross drivers. Their idea is that if international aid organizations come in there, they will make things better and create goodwill toward the West, and the Taliban don’t want that. They want a revolution. So they’ve frightened everyone off. Even the CIA can’t operate there unless they’re using Pakistanis who are double agents.

A lot of people who haven’t seen the film think that I must go around with a hidden camera and shoot from behind walls. But that would get me killed real quick, because someone who’s trying to do something covert would be picked up and killed as a spy, because that’s what they do: they kill spies. So at no point do I act like a spy. Everything I do is visible. But just to up the ante a little, I play an American spy in both of the movies we made. I play a CIA agent bringing people in over the mountains.

RAIL: I’m not a real spook; I just play one in the movies.

GITTOES: [Laughs] The thing is, both the drama we made, Fire, and the comedy, Servants, are very successful, and are playing all over Afghanistan and on cable throughout the Islamic world. If I’m walking through the airport in Dubai, people come up and ask for an autograph. Even there, they don’t think I’m a foreigner; they think I’m a famous Pashto actor. Obviously, I have zero ability as an actor. Anyone who sees this movie will recognize that I’m the most hopelessly bad actor in the world. But I’m a star in Taliwood!

RAIL: George, it’s taken me awhile to figure out what you are, but now I know that you are an artist, and these films are just part of your art.

GITTOES: As an artist, I have this instinct for making something, some strange hybrid kind of film that’s mine; but I really see it as a kind of social sculpture. I used to do these huge outdoor shows in Australia, incorporating firemen and all sorts of people who were not normally in the arts. We had a cast of 400 people. We’d have flying foxes, cranes, scuba divers under the water, and some professional artists. I learned how to do these large-scale community works with a lot of people, and I’ve just transferred that activity to making a film like The Miscreants. This is extreme community arts, you know?

I love this new digital age where you actually have these cheap movie cameras and an artist can go out without a budget and just start doing it, like Van Gogh went out with his easel and paints and worked on the side of the road. I can go out with just as small a kit and end up with a film that can play in big theaters around the world.

RAIL: At one point in the film you say, “I wouldn’t want to make a dramatic film because I don’t care about that.” But here you are making dramas, comedies, and action films.

GITTOES: Everyone has always told me that making documentaries is just a step up to making feature films, dramas, but to me the documentary comes first. Although that’s not really true because my films aren’t quite documentaries. I’m not sure what they are. [Laughs]

RAIL: Well, there is a very complex mixture of fiction and documentary in The Miscreants, and it sounds like that is going to get even more complicated.

GITTOES: It’s getting more complicated, and I’m loving every minute of it. I want to do three more Pashtun films in Pakistan, and then I want to make another film like The Miscreants, but this time dealing with the actual lives of my actors. By then we’ll be a solid ensemble, a real working circus show. We’ll go to Kabul and make what I’m calling “Scarface in Kabul.”

RAIL: George, we were both friends of Leon Golub at the same time, over the last five years of his life, and that was something Leon talked about a lot: the need to bring reality into the work. He wanted to make a connection, to be engaged with the real world. It caused a crisis in his work during the Vietnam War, when his friends who were abstract painters could say, “This is my politics, this is my art, and they’re two different things.” But Leon felt that, as a figurative painter, he couldn’t say that. He was implicated.

GITTOES: Well, I’m a figurative painter, and my films are figurative painting with a camera. I started out as an abstract painter when I was very young, 18 and 19, at Sydney University, studying with Bernard Smith, our great historian. Smith was a friend of Clement Greenberg, and he invited Greenberg to come to Australia in 1968. At that time, I was doing these canvases that were usually dominantly one color with a single shape. Greenberg thought they were like the work of Adolph Gottlieb, and he encouraged me to come to New York, so I did, in 1968, and Greenberg was very generous to me, trying to help me get a job and get set up. But when I was in New York, at age 19, in 1968, I mean it was like, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and then Bobby Kennedy, and you had Czechoslovakia and Northern Ireland and Paris and Chicago exploding, and the world was just out there, you know? And I was lucky enough to meet the wonderful African-American artist Joseph Delaney, who was teaching at the Art Students League, and he got me going to Black Panther rallies and civil rights events and encouraged me to draw from life, and I’ve been a figurative artist ever since.

As I’ve been covering all these wars, I’ve always carried my notebooks around and done drawings constantly. Quite often I’ll be with someone who’s wounded and I’m waiting to get them into a helicopter, and I’ll calm them down by drawing with them. A lot of my drawings have been done under tanks and in other extreme conditions. In places where people are suffering terribly, if you sit down and draw them, they love it.

I’ve now seen too much death and violence and carnage, David. I’ve probably seen more people killed and maimed and wounded than anyone who’s ever lived, and I’ve reached this point where I know the horror of war, and I’ve seen over and over again that you cannot kill someone without killing some part of yourself. I hear young soldiers say, “We want to bust our cherry, we want to kill someone, we want to have contact.” And I say, “No, you don’t.” And then they go out and do it and it’s messy and nasty and it’s often the wrong person and nothing about it is like it is in the movies, and then they spend the whole night crying on my chest, you know? You can’t kill someone else without doing permanent damage to your soul. These kids are sent off to these wars on the premise that when they kill it is not murder because they’re doing it for their flag, for their country. And that just ain’t true. Wearing an American army uniform or praying with the Taliban does not make you immune from what happens to you in war. War to me is the greatest obscenity ever, that we could have reached this level of civilization and war still continues.

RAIL: George, you’ve told me that you don’t understand why more artists don’t go into these conflict zones and make work there, but they tell you that they couldn’t take it, that they couldn’t bear seeing what you’ve seen over the years, being in all that darkness.

GITTOES: You say darkness, but there is also light. In these horrific places where I’ve been, you also see acts of incredible kindness and courage. If you’ve ever seen someone with true courage in action, that’s pure light. I can tell you a story. I was in Rwanda during the genocide. There was a girl there, only about fourteen or fifteen years old, and she had already been shot multiple times, but she brought her auntie over to me and said “don’t you move,” and the girl went off and got some children and others, relatives, and brought them over to me, taking a few more bullets, because she knew that I would get them out. And then she sat down next to me and was all hot for a few minutes and then she went cold and she was dead. Those were the last few minutes of her life, and that was the most inspiring thing I’ve ever seen. You get all of these materialist philosophers who say that everyone does everything out of self-interest. But this dying girl wasn’t acting out of self-interest when she did that. She was absolutely selfless. She acted out of love. So that’s not darkness, that’s light. And when there’s a lot of darkness all around, that kind of light shines brightest, I can tell you, and I think, I hope, that my work is finally about that light within people.

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