Apr 272012

Australian film-maker and artist George Gittoes has spent much of the last 15 years in Afghanistan. He speaks to SBS about life over there with Australian troops.
George Gittoes is an Australian documentary film-maker and visual artist who has been in Afghanistan for the past 15 years.
His award winning documentaries Soundtrack to War and Rampage are visual reports that show the terrifying and compelling realities of war zones.
He has filmed and reported from conflict-ridden countries such as Bosnia, Rwanda and Iraq.
Gittoes talked to SBS before he departs again for Jalalabad in southern Afghanistan next week where he runs community arts centre, The Yellow House.
Interview by Farid Farid, SBS.
Q: Your documentary films and artistic murals depict the searing harshness of war, can you shed light on the morale and operations of ADF troops when you were stationed with them?
I’ve been with Australian soldiers in many places such as Western Sahara, Cambodia, Palestine/Israel, Somalia, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan.
I think Australian soldiers are better informed than the Americans say.
We give them proper, culturally sensitive training and workshops.
We wouldn’t have Koran burnings, for example, because we understand a bit better the tough situation.
The Australian soldiers have more initiative than just sitting around the fort.
They interact with the local communities through woodworking workshops with children.
These are not top-down projects they are mostly created by conscientious individual soldiers who could not see the value of foot patrols.
Q: What are your thoughts on the latest string of US military indiscretions such as the alleged Robert Bales killings, urinating on bodies and Koran burnings?
From my own experience, the culture of Afghanistan is one of the most complex in the world.
It is based on jirga laws and customs where decisions in everyday aspects of life are made in a consultative manner with local elders.
It functions as small local democratic assemblies found within family and community structures. American forces did not respect this custom.
Australians as well but in a different way completely.  With the Americans, there is a growing sentiment of mistrust towards them constantly disrespecting Afghan culture.
Killing innocent people, mutilating dead bodies and many more gruesome incidents that go unreported in western media but talked about widely in Afghan media.
In Jalalabad, during the Koran burnings there were riots. The city erupted in violence, people blew up US oil tankers.
I filmed all of this, I was probably the only Western witness who had the trust of locals because I have been working there for nearly 11 years even before the Americans invaded after September 11th.
Q: What is the sentiment regarding Australian troops?
We have also had a few stuff-ups, believe me.  It all comes down to cultural ignorance and disrespect of jirga law.
It is not always Taliban as reported by the press but often disgruntled locals who attack Australian soldiers.
Australian lives have been lost by ignorance of cultural traditions.
The military machine believes that chatting with anyone on the street and being invited into their house will win them friends.
Unfortunately, these people become targets themselves because they are seen as complicit in the invasion.
When I met the Australian ambassador in Kabul, I was informed that taxpayers spend $1 million per soldier per year.
Yet, the maximum amount for grants for community development projects is only $10,000 and the forms are not even in Pashto where 70% of the country speaks that language!
Q: What is the situation at the moment, especially in that Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced an Australian troop withdrawal in 2013?
A: I can see the revival of Afghan and Persian culture. I’ve a created a community arts centre called Yellow House where Afghan stories are being told and facilitated by artists. I hope to continue working there over the next decade.
Yet, I wonder whether it will survive post-American – rather than Australian – forces withdrawing.
Almost certainly the Taliban will fill the power vacuum once all Western troops leave but they will have to adjust to a more educated population who have grown accustomed to freedoms and renaissance of their culture.
Saying that though, there are night raids everyday!
Three families that I know personally in Jalalabad have been raided by US and Afghan forces.
I’ve been a vocal critic of this terrible practice where they come with helicopters, noise grenades, dragging men on their knees, committing petty robbery and stealing a whole family’s lifesavings.
This has created a lot of bad will with the Americans.
Q: Finally, what has interested you in living and working in Afghanistan but more generally your work in conflict zones such as Iraq & Rwanda? In essence, what are you trying to expose?
Afghans and Iraqis for example have a great sense of humour – like Australians – which I can relate to.
Afghans know more about Ricky Ponting, former captain of the Australian cricket team, than our colonel in charge in Tarin Kowt in southern Afghanistan.
My job has been rewarding in collaborating with complex and wonderful individuals and capture their stories in a way that humanises them.


Apr 212012

I was unaware of Artinfo.com as a force until Trevor Smith contacted me today saying he had seen the article and interview.

It was done so long ago I had forgotten the content. It is interesting that I mention the Rubin Museum and how the Caves were the most powerful experience in Jalalabad. This was stressed over the negative and violent experiences. It should help with a pitch to them .The one museum I would most like to show in is the Rubin with its collection of Buddhist art. The Dahli Lama stressed that my work was all about Compassion . I could see how this theme could hold it all together and the DLs portrait would fit. I had never heard of Artinfo and did not expect it to have any impact but I have suddenly started getting lots of enthusiastic reactions.

George Gittoes on his way to Tora Bora with his circus crew
Australian artist, filmmaker and activist George Gittoes is an amazing person indeed.  Not only is he one of the world’s most incredible unofficial war artists, but he also empowers locals from war-ravaged towns and cities by including them in art projects such as films.  He has even used Taliban fighters in his films and encourages visitors to his Yellow House artist’s co-operative from Taliban supporting villages to produce art in an effort to change their anti art attitudes!!  Currently based in Jalabad, Afghanistan’s largest eastern city, Gittoes is working on a number of projects including a film, a series of paintings, a recreation of his Yellow House artist’s co-operative as well as a travelling tent cinema circus.
From the unspeakable mass murders of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide to the atrocities of the War on Terror, Gittoes has documented the effects of virtually every major conflict since Vietnam and has seen more human suffering than most people could ever bare to see.  With a global rather than regional vision, Gittoes has set up mobile studios and created works in the US, Central America, Cambodia, Laos, Philippines, Somalia, the Middle East, Western Sahara, Sinai, Mozambique, South Africa, Rwanda, Congo, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Bougainville, China, Tibet, Thailand, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Timor, Russia, Yemen and Iraq – often in the worst of times, when those regions were experiencing conflict and upheaval.
When asked why he does what he does Gittoes said: “as far as choosing the roads I have travelled, I have this instinct that if I get comfortable, the work will lose its ‘sting’, so I go out of the comfort zones and into the wilderness to find my art. In the past it was the natural world where predators fed on gentler creatures. In the contemporary context, I go alone into a different kind of human wilderness – Rwanda, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq – not to contemplate nature, but the basics of humanity…”
His internationally acclaimed trilogy of feature films which include Soundtrack to War (05) Rampage (06) and The Miscreants of Taliwood (09) have been screened around the world and his paintings shown in some of the world’s most prestigious galleries.  In fact, the effects of his global artistic outreach have been so positive that he received an Order of Australia, AM, for services to the Arts and International Relations in 1997.
Gittoes’ oeuvre is so extensive and his experiences so intense that they deserve to be revealed project by project, piece by piece.  Part two of this series will feature an exclusive interview with Gittoes as well as footage from one of his films.