Australian filmmaker, artist, and activist George Gittoes’s documentary “Snow Monkey” begins with an abrupt montage of bizarre images, including grotesquely masked children dancing on a rooftop in Jalalabad, one of the most dangerous cities in war-torn Afghanistan. Never losing its air of antic spontaneity, the film shows the making of a film within the film, which turns out to be the film we’re watching — a documentary about street kids making a documentary about themselves.
Holding it all together is the presence of Gittoes, 67, a white-bearded sage who has been trying to bring peace to the country through the Yellow House, a haven of art and understanding in the midst of the chaos.
He discussed the film and other projects via e-mail from London, where he was visiting a friend. “Snow Monkey” can be seen as part of the Salem Film Fest on Wednesday at 8 p.m. at CinemaSalem.
Q. How are the subjects of the film doing?
A. The Yellow House is flourishing, and the Afghan filmmakers we support there are presently making a film about the exploitation of children in child labor, and this was inspired by their part in helping to make “Snow Monkey.” The most talented of the filmmaking boys, Zabi, was taken prisoner by Islamic State (Daesh) and forced to carry guns for them. After three gun-carrying missions he escaped. He now does film news stories for the local TV station and is on the way to becoming a very talented film journalist. The saddest thing was the death of the Old Sufi. He decided to go out into one of the provinces with the Kuchi nomads and play his music and sing his Sufi songs to the locals. IS fanatics smashed his harmonium and cut out his tongue before decapitating him. This loss has been profound for me and everyone at the Yellow House.
Q. Can you say a bit more about the scene in the film when you are visited by the Taliban?
A. There was a chance they had come to kill us, but slowly their leader, Haqqani, reassured us that they had investigated our activities and decided we were doing good work for the Afghan people. My many years of working in Afghanistan has made me hyper-sensitive to cultural taboos and moral codes and this paid off. We had not done anything to offend the fundamentalist beliefs of the Taliban, while still advancing the education of women and promoting the arts. The real problem for us in Jalalabad is not the Taliban but the new forces of IS. We depend on the Taliban to give us an umbrella of protection against these ruthless and cruel insurgents.
Q. Did you start out with a structure in mind or did it emerge while you were making the movie?
A. I have been making films for almost 40 years and am of the school of filmmaker that agrees with Picasso when he said “I do not seek, I find.” I hate doing treatments and restructuring for my films, as it seems dishonest trying to predict a future which has not happened. My aim was to find a group of local children who had been negatively affected by the constant warfare and disruption to schooling and everything that war causes. I sculpt the reality I find. I have never liked the deception of making it seem like there is no film crew present — that the filmmakers with their cameras are like flies on the wall. I prefer to let audiences know how we are interacting with our characters and showing the relationships not only of the local participants but also with the filmmakers. It is all about compassion and love and I am not ashamed to reveal my affection for the people and the places I film.
Q. What are your other influences?
A. My early influences as a filmmaker were directors like Fellini, and you can see that in the opening scene with the masks and the boys dancing on the rooftop. I feel that my films are like portraits of a people and city and the camera is not a lot different from a brush. So I come to my films with the vision of an artist and not the discipline or background of a journalist. I think that for documentary to remain fresh and evolve it has to be prepared to accept the changing of boundaries and formats.
Q. Do you have faith that art, and film in particular, can change the world?
A. If we do not encourage our creative side, then, as a species, we are doomed, rogue apes. I work across many mediums from film to painting but the most effective work I do to help make the world a better place is what I call social sculpture. I will never know how my work in film and photojournalism has affected the policies of governments, but I do know for certain that I have inspired many people to want to show compassion through their art and lives.Interview was edited and condensed. Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.