George Gittoes: 6/10/22 – The New Yellow House

Back in Australia after a period spent with friends and collaborators in Jalalabad, George Gittoes reflects on the success of the Yellow House Jalalabad – having secured new, permanent premises – and the progress of his current film projects in Afghanistan.

 In 1972, Jane Fonda was the hottest actress in Hollywood since Marilyn Monroe until she was photographed posing on an anti-aircraft gun in Vietnam. Despite being the star of Cat Ballou, Barefoot in the Park, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Barbarella, and winning an Academy Award for Klute she was blacklisted by Hollywood for the next seven years. In the same era, Muhammad Ali was jailed after refusing to be drafted to Vietnam, and prevented from defending his title. 

In Australia, we did the same to our most courageous ever war journalist Wilfred Burchett, who was refused a passport back into his own country for seventeen years for reporting the Vietnam War from the other side. 

Burchett was the first journalist into Hiroshima after it was nuked and his story headlined “The Atomic Plague” was the first to report on radiation sickness. General MacArthur had put a ban on any stories about radiation after-effects. His spin doctors got to work and compliant journalists, who knew the truth, went along with it. Burchett, like Fonda, paid a high price for telling the truth to counter official lies.

Even in primary school, I loved history. I can thank my father, who had the paper delivered every day and expected my sister and I to read it and be able to discuss current events around the dinner table. It was a joy to enter high school with the chance of studying modern history but our history teacher, Mr Night, was a Christian fundamentalist. I had already been caned, by him, for saying I agreed with Darwin about evolving from apes, so when the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals came up and I suggested the Americans should go on trial for Hiroshima and Nagasaki I was taken out into the hallway and caned again. Mr Night was both a History and English master at Kogarah High School, and awarded me zero marks at the end of the year exams in both subjects. The low marks had me downgraded to woodwork and metalwork classes.

In the days after I first arrived in Jalalabad, crossing the land border at Torkham, I received emails from concerned friends and associates warning me not to associate myself with the Taliban. One friend warned I would “undermine my many years of building a respected reputation in Australia by meddling in the minefield of foreign affairs.”

I had no idea what would happen to me once I crossed the border, and during the preparations to leave, I had restless nights of imagining the ways things could go very bad. 

Things went very well but perhaps this could mean they will go very bad for my reputation and career in the future with me getting labelled Taliban George, a contemporary version of Hanoi Jane.

My two objectives were to get a permit to freely make our feature documentary there without minders or surveillance, and to get guarantees that our Yellow House Arts Centre could be allowed to continue without interference. I achieved both of these goals.

What I did not expect or hope for was the chance to show the Afghan and Taliban side of the twenty-year conflict.

George Bush did not go into Afghanistan to liberate women, but cultural change for women and girls has been put forward as the objective of the twenty-year war.  This has been used by Professional Public Perception Manipulators (PPPMs) to cover up the brutal killings of thousands of civilians with drone strikes and deadly raids on villages throughout the country, while they hunted down those Afghan fighters who were the resistance to their occupation – calling them insurgents. 

Australia’s lasting legacy is to have allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan tainting our involvement. The defence department report which investigated these allegations proves them to be the most damaging in our military history.

I do not see the Taliban through rose-coloured glasses, and I am certain they will object to aspects of my film but what I will be attacked for in Australia, the US, and Europe is showing them to be human.

After all, I am the maker of Miscreants of Taliwood, a documentary that provoked the Pakistani Taliban to send a death threat to the Australian Embassy in Islamabad offering to “remove my face from my body.” Miscreants of Taliwood denounced the practices of the Pakistani Taliban in trying to wipe out the Pashtun film industry. I knew that by going into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan I could encounter those who made those threats, and lose my head.

It was a huge risk and now I am back in Australia facing the risk of losing my credibility and respect for trying to tell the truth about what I have experienced and what I aim to film in the year ahead.

When President Kennedy increased the budget for the war in Vietnam, Wilfred Burchett wrote, “No peasants anywhere in the world have had so many dollars lavished on their extermination.” Hellen and I have watched as trillions of dollars were spent on the twenty-year war in Afghanistan, knowing that ninety percent of it was going to military contractors like Halliburton and Blackwater, corrupt politicians and government officials, and the manufacturers of advanced US-made technology. Bob Dylan’s song “Masters of War” fits these makers of drones and hellfire missiles more in 2022 than back in 1963 when it was written as an anti-Vietnam protest.  

The Jalalabad Yellow House has been entirely funded by my art sales and has contributed to the enhancement of many Afghan lives and careers, especially through Hellen’s women’s media workshops.

Our aim with the Jalalabad Yellow House is to show that art can succeed where militarism has failed. Filmmaking in both English and Pashto language is intrinsic to the Yellow House. My first priority was to get a permit granting the freedom to make films without minders or surveillance. This involved two weeks of long meetings with the Taliban Minister of Information and Culture in Jalalabad, and then with similar officials in Kabul. When we finally got our certificate, we had to wait two days for all the branches of military, police, and intelligence to be informed we were to be left alone and not hindered. That worked and no one has bothered us.

I put this to the test by painting a five-metre canvas banner letting it fly behind a three-wheel rickshaw cart while Zabi and I stood on the tray holding onto it. We drove it through the whole city and upriver to the new location of the Yellow House, with everyone smiling and waving and never being stopped or questioned. (Note: Zabi was one of the icecream boys from our film ‘Snow Monkey’ and is now a principle cameraman at the Yellow House Jalalabad.)

The penultimate test, however, came when I asked to film an interview inside the former air base that the US had used to send the Navy Seals team on their mission to kill bin Laden.  In the Kathryn Bigelow Hollywood drama Zero Dark Thirty, there is a re-enactment of bin Laden’s bullet-riddled body being carted out of a chopper onto the base. The Taliban now control this air base with tight security, making it inaccessible to outsiders. It had been impossible to be there, but I found myself with full access, interviewing a Taliban base commander, with our three cameras rolling and a squad of Mujahidin holding American weapons and wearing American special forces uniforms. I had them all smiling and laughing and agreeing to come to the Yellow House once it is ready.

It was wonderful being reunited with all the men, women, and children of the Yellow House. I was super relieved to find they were all OK and still working in their former jobs or businesses. But, I was told that those who could afford three meals a day were having two, and those who could only afford two were having one, and those who could only afford one were eating every couple of days. The international economic punishment of Afghanistan since the American withdrawal has led to serious poverty and starvation. 

Hellen and I decided to take the plunge and purchase a house and land to give the Yellow House permanence. Our old Yellow House has only ever been in rented premises with no secure lease agreement. The new Yellow House is up the river on tribal land. This location puts it under tribal law, largely beyond the jurisdiction of the Taliban government. For over twelve years we have had the support of this community and shot many of our dramas on location there due to the liberal values of its leaders. We are neighbours to our friend Assam whose daughter, Medina, starred in the children’s film Simorgh, directed by Neha Ali Khan and documented in Love City. The location is perfect as it has the largest and most progressive high school a couple of hundred metres from its back fence. A large university has been constructed and is about to open a short distance behind the school.

The Yellow House is the only art school in Jalalabad. We are already collaborating closely with the students, teachers, and academics from the neighbouring school and university.

Hellen and I will return to Jalalabad in November to supervise the building of the new Yellow House and continue making our feature documentary titled Taliland. I am going to have to roll up my sleeves and help to drill a bore for running water, dig a septic tank for toilets, and install solar panels to wire the place for electricity. 

Afghans have suffered ten years where the Russians killed two million people in a brutal scorched-earth campaign similar to what is now taking place in Ukraine,  followed by twenty years of American and allied occupation in a war where the death toll has not yet been estimated. 

We want to help them rebuild and believe that positive social change can never come at the point of a gun, but through education and the arts. 

Posing for a group photograph with our friends at the new Yellow House was one of the happiest moments of my life. To think, “This is possible, we can do it!”

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