Saturday, February 13, 2010

George Gittoes' THE MISCREANTS OF TALIWOOD makes MoMA debut; Q&A

Every so often -- but not nearly often enough -- comes along a film that single-handedly defines what the name TrustMovies and the site itself hopes to accom-
plish: putting you in touch with films that do things other media can't or won't, in the process offering up the truth of our world (part of it, at least) in a manner you'll not find elsewhere. Just such a film is making its New York debut with two screenings during MoMA's Documentary Fortnight (February 18 at 8pm in MoMA's Titus 1 theater and February 19 at 4pm in Titus 2). If you want to discover Pakistan, the Taliban, movie-making, hypocrisy, sex (homo & hetero) and death (real & fake) in a combination that I wager you will have not previously come even close to, then line up for THE MISCREANTS OF TALIWOOD from Australian filmmaker George Gittoes (shown below).

The dictionary defines miscreant as an infidel or heretic, one who behaves criminally or viciously. Chief among the many delicious ironies of Mr. Gittoes' movie is that titular word. The Taliban would have us believe that the Pakistani movie-makers are the miscreants here. The movie-makers, however, along with audiences who have finished watching the film, will have other ideas. "Taliwood," as you have probably already figured out, is a play on Hollywood, Bollywood and perhaps some other movie-making "wood" of which I am yet unawares -- and on the Taliban.

Gittoes is a 60-year-old artist/activist who tends to put himself in harm's way by going to the world's current "action" spots to make his films: the 2005 Soundtrack to War (war-torn Iraq) and the 2006 Rampage, filmed in the dangerous projects of Miami, during which the brother of the film's main character was killed. Because, in the Peshawar area of Pakistan (especially the tribal belt, that region called the Northwest frontier that is completely outside the control of the Pakistani government), a foreigner, particularly anyone thought to be an American, can easily be shot on sight, Mr. Gittoes' looks probably saved his life. With long, flowing gray hair and wearing Pakistani clothing, he fits right in, no questions asked. Once the men in charge meet him, so gregarious is he (and Australian rather than American) that they take to him immediately.

Our man in Pakistan is there to help the country's budding filmmakers do their job: concocting movies that are so over-the-top in every way that they make most Bollywood product look subtle and restrained by comparison. (The Pakis do make other kinds of films; read the interview below for further clarification.) Another fine irony is that, while our hearts may go out to these new filmmakers, our minds are reeling from the silliness of what we see on-screen. Not Mr. Gittoes. He's all for them, first documenting what he sees, then being hired to act in their films, and finally putting up the money to produce two of their films (at $7,000 for two full-length movies, this is a deal at which only Zachary Oberzan or Jonathan Caouette might stick up his nose).

In any case, while these movies may not be "Art," they serve multiple purposes: entertaining the masses (most of whom are illiterate and don't have good television reception but can afford the price of $15 to buy a DVD player to watch straight-to-video Pakistani films in their own language) and providing lots of jobs that help feed families and pay for shelter.

As the film moves on, it grows more complex. In a section titled Planet of the Men, Gittoes tackles a subject we hear about mostly via rumor, innuendo and the sleazier kind of Muslim-bashing: the almost complete segregation of the sexes resulting in a kind of enforced homosexuality that, even so, dares not speak its name. The filmmaker talks to several young men who tell of early sexual experiences; one of them is a call boy who plies his trade in a rickshaw, a "love shack on wheels," as Gittoes calls it. These homosexual highjinks ascend into the top echelons of the Taliban, making mosques the most dangerous place for boys to be. This enforced homosexuality brings up another "dangerous" question: Are these boys and young men "gay" if all they've known so far is homosexual behavior and thus consider it "normal." And what does this say about "normal" in Pakistan. Or for that matter, elsewhere around the globe. (In the Q&A that follows this review, Mr. Gittoes offers some additional insight.)

What about feminism? Could there be even the slightest trace of this in a culture that holds women down and back about as well as any in history? Oh, yes. We meet two actresses in particu-
lar: Kirin and NoNo, the former's story is haunting and sad, while the latter's is... hmmmm, different. She's a popular sin-
ger, comedian and dancer, who occasion-
ally makes a sex film, a scene from one of which is leaked via cell phone to much appreciation from her countrymen and considerably less from the Taliban. So NoNo goes into hiding.

You probably didn't know that midgets (or little people) are very big in Pakistani films. We meet two of them here (shown below), as well as a pro-Taliban political figure, Maulana Gul Naseeb, Senator of the MMA party, from whom hypocrisy fairly oozes. The funniest scene occurs as George must shoot his documentary and fiction films simultaneously, which confuses his crew something fierce. Which is which? They continually mix things up.

While George is filming, Benazir Bhutto is killed, and from this point on the film grows increasingly dark-unto-grizzly.  A mosque is bombed (below) and, in an amphitheater, we watch as a 12-year-old boy beheads a prisoner of the Taliban, taking three minutes to do it while showing not a trace of compassion or humanity.  Simple beheading of prisoners, which has been going on for awhile, is failing any longer to bring in the crowds.  Something new must be provided: hence the use of children as executioners.

This area of Pakistan, notes Gittoes is now a theater of terror: "A world where no one knows who's leading us into war, why we're going there, or if anyone has any vision of why we're doing it."  If this brings to mind Gomorrah, not to mention countless narratives and documentaries about Iraq, comparisons are apt.

*****

To derive the best interview possible from this most interesting filmmaker, TrustMovies first sent George Gittoes a list of questions by email, and then spoke to him via Skype (the means for good, cheap verbal communication). The following is a combination of the two, with TrustMovies in boldface and Gittoes in standard type.

How did you get involved in the film?

I do my art and my photos, and then I do my films. One of the creative things I do is to invent my own aid stuff: like bringing attention to land mines in various countries.  For instance, I went up into hills of Afghanistan, and the tribal chiefs there loved it because it brought some attention to the "mines" problem and the world then showed some interest in that area. I put on a huge show in Geneva, too, and started getting money to help with prosthetics clinics. And I'm still involved with those same groups. But now I'm concerning myself with bigger issues. While making Miscreants, I got involved in a self-help program for poor people to get into hospitals, and for young women who are poor to get scholarships.  I got involved with cricketers to put up money for girls in Pakistan to go to school. I convinced Oxfam to fund things there, too. It's kind of combining creative work with aid work. I am tired of how most Non Government Organizations (NGOs) waste money on more administrative costs than on helping the people they're supposed to help.  So basically I have helped create some new NGOs in the Tribal Belt, the region called the NW frontier, which is completely ungoverned and outside the control of Pakistani government. I've been doing this kind of thing now for more than 20 years.  I began it in New York in late 1968-69. Andy Warhol was first person who introduced me to a movie camera. And art critic Clement Greenberg first encourage me to get involved. The sense of what was going on in the streets back then made me go outside and use my camera and my drawing talent along side of what was happening in the world -- and then connect these.

The idea of creativity vs fundamentalism (of any kind) seems more and more important these days. Yet the "creativity" on display in the Paki/Taliwood movies seems almost farcical. Yet it is creativity. And the distance between artists having the right to say something and the worth of what they are saying makes for an interesting tension, at least in the first part of your movie. It reminded me of why we must stick up for free speech, even if we don't agree with what's being spoken. In the Pakistan films that you saw while there, did you notice any major variation in quality? Might there be a budding "great" filmmaker on the Pakistani scene?


The Pashtun films you see in my movie are sections chosen for their impact. There are a lot of family dramas and comedies that are more sober but would not have much colour when taken out of context. However, the films are made for the most uneducated people in the world. There is considered to only be 2% literacy in the tribal belt and it is lower for girls. This means they can not even read their own language. The only form of input they are getting is from these films and radio. They can not develop narrative appreciation through books. The films, therefore, have a melodramatic quality and in many ways resemble silent films. They have to be read visually and an over developed or intellectual script would be over most of their heads, even in their own language. The films do, however, introduce new ideas, such as the liberation of women and their right to be seen. This may seem a small thing but it is very crucial for more than half the population .

It has really pissed me off when various reviewers have said that they can agree with the Taliban in stopping these films because they seem so bad . This is incredible snobbery and could only be said by people living in very safe and comfortable societies .

The other factor is that the films have to pay for themselves; there is no government support. The producers who put up the money are small video store owners who are by our standards quite poor. They are from the lower classes and love films but have to get their money back . They can not risk doing films that test the limits of their audiences to the degree that they might become unpopular. So this is a true example of popular art made for the people and by the people.

The actors and directors are not from the educated classes either. But there was a real hope for them to create great films in the future because of the volume of films they were churning out . They were constantly learning and improving on the job, up to the point that the industry was stopped by the Taliban. None of them have been to actor- or training-schools .

The intellectuals at Peshawar University totally support these working class film makers and often agree to act in the dramas and help improve the scripts. This is a healthy relationship that could lead to collaborations of significant value because the intellectuals are learning on the job as well.

I have been spending my time in Europe trying to get organisations to agree to put money into the Tribal Film Industry. I have succeeded in getting Oxfam to fund the restarting of the local Pasktun film industry by proposing to fund nine of these films each year and let the profits from them go back to the artists. The Oxfam-funded films will take away the 'grind house' necessity to make the kind of films they have done in the past. I will help get this project up and running and will encourage the directors and writers to use this opportunity to make dramas that depend less on big action scenes etc.  But I will not try to realize my creative visions through them.

I am close to and love these filmmakers and want to see them continue to develop. But their development can not be at the expense of losing their audiences. It is of little use to them to make films that will get shown at Cannes , Sundance and the Berlinale if no one wants to watch them in the Tribal Belt. The people of the Tribal Belt are poor and have little joy or escape in their lives. These films make them laugh and are a bit of fun for them in the face of the strict life the Taliban want to inflict on them. I had the opportunity in the two dramas that I made to make "arty" films I could show to audiences outside Pakistan but felt this would be selfish and would have been against my concept of making a couple of Pashtun Films and getting them sold out in the local markets. The money from the dramas went back to the actors and artists working on the films, so I had an obligation to make the films Pashtun hits. They were -- and both films sold over 40,000 copies in Pakistan and Afghanistan . Since they were the last two films made, the money from their sales was all that kept the artists going in the period after their work was taken from them.

Please also note that when people are illiterate they can not get much sense out of foreign films with subtitles, so even Indian films are useless to them. This industry has come about because DVD players have become so cheap -- down to less than $15 US for a player. Each poor village can afford a player and a Monitor and so the movies are shown to fairly large audiences and the discs are swapped around. If you could see the mud hut poverty the films are shown in, you would be shocked. These are places where there is no running water and power only comes from generators:  little health care and a lot of starvation .

What was it like for you to be "acting" in a movie, rather than creating a documentary? Was it fun -- or more of an effort? Are we going to get the chance to see the actual movie you made?

Jim , I am aware that I am a terrible actor and could have only done it because my bad acting fitted the melodramatic nature of these films. It was like being in a junior high school play. But I must say loved the project and enjoyed every moment . As I say in the movie "I felt like a kid who had joined the circus." Of course, I did not enjoy being in a mosque after a suicide bomb attack and there were very down and dangerous moments during the production -- but when I look back on this film I have the fondest memories of anything I have ever worked on. The artists like Javed and No No and little Bul Bul and Isfandear were real friends and great to be with. I am still funding Javed to feed all his kids as there is no work and I could not live with myself to think of them starving . I have paid for Isfandear (midget kick boxer and ice seller) to learn to read and write and speak english  Perhaps he could be the next Mini Me. I am looking forward to being back with them all again on the OXFAM project. That is only a couple of months away .

I would also like to make another doc and drama with some of them in Afghanistan. I will call both films Scarface in Kabul.

I originally intended to try to release the second drama 'Fire' (the comedy is too local to work outside Pakistan) at the same time as 'Miscreants'. This aim resulted in my spending a couple of weeks getting all the actors to dub their speaking roles into English: a huge challenge because none of them spoke any English so they had to imitate the sound of what I was saying . They did a good job and were proud of it (you can hear a bit of it in the doc -- like when Javed and Kirin are together after he gets wounded ). I would still like to do this but do not have the money to do the post-production work that is needed to do the job. I calculate it would cost at least $30,000 to make a release copy . I just do not have that. I am really broke, as the film has not found a distirbutor and has no TV or Cable sales outside Australia (except Poland and that is a small amound) . I put up the money for the project so I am really hurting financially on this and would have no hope of paying to do the necessary work to get it out. It is a shame. Maybe someday.... It would be great if some rich person said, "Hey George-- let me fund this!

How do you manage to make your movie and sort of "comment" on it at the same time?   Miscreants packs in so much information, as well as differing viewpoints.

Most documentarians don't try to play with the form at all.  My film tries to do this -- so that it can work for the MTV generation. The fact that I’ve used two cameras -- always -- means that you get this "in and around" thing. When I got to Kirin’s house, you see me drop the camera and laugh, I say “I think there’s more to this than just finding an actress for the movies.” This would not work with just one camera and one point of view. You need that other, broader point of view. Wherever I go I arrive with two or three cameras, but no crew.  Instead, I find someone I can teach to use the other camera. I couldn’t take another foreigner there because he’d be killed, probably within the day. I speak the language, I’ve got the long hair, I know the walk, the gait, the manner. You can’t be in Western clothes.


Your PLANET OF THE MEN section was particularly interesting to me as a gay/bisexual man. It raises all sort of interesting questions about nature vs nurture. Clearly, as in all cultures, there would be a certain minority of guys who lean toward their same sex. But with so many men engaging in homosexuality (as the easier alternative), it becomes almost like what the right wing over here accuses gays of doing: recruiting "straights" to the "gay" side. Yet this is what the Taliban is forcing on its own culture: Very hypocritical (but then so much engaged in by the powerful in all cultures is hypocritical). Did you have any further thoughts about all this that did not make the cut in your film?

I think this is the one section in the film that Broadcasters are most frightened of. It is the other side of the problem of women not having any freedom. While people like me have spent their lives fighting for gay rights and better understanding of gays it is still important to show the issues in the tribal belt of Pakistan are very different . I think all men there enjoy bi-sexual sex . Most say they prefer 'hard bodies' and by the time they get to be with a woman they have lost the taste for 'soft bodies.' I only have one friend there who says he does not like sex with other men. This is Javed, and I think this is because, as an actor, he has often felt -- well, we might call it 'undue pressure,' as the male actors are expected to sell themselves, just as the women are. As I say in my movie, it is great to be a man there. I enjoy all the spontaneous kisses and hugs and massage etc. I wish all men could be as warm and open and physically affectionate towards each other as are these men of the Tribal Belt.

While over there, one just has to give in to it and accept that close contact between men is natural and enjoy it. I did not take it any further than hugs and kisses and massage with any of my friends there but it was good. Men there really care about each other in an intimate way and it feels really different to have other men reading the slightest emotions of pain or injury or discomfort and trying to do something to make you feel better -- and all this is at a very subtle level. There is a dark side to it, however, when men get most of their intimate pleasure from other men it is easier to downplay the needs and aspirations of women. The Taliban have taken huge advantage of this. Most Senior Taliban Leaders openly have a harem of young boys.

You actually paid the $4,000 to bankroll the movie we see being made? Or did you bankroll two of them for $7,000? (Is this tax deductible as a charitable donation? It should be!)

I paid $4,000 and $3,000.  I am a poor artist, but I did pay this out of my own money and this was only the basic budget. I paid out a lot more for catering and hotels and vehicles etc plus better quality live music etc. Why this next project is so workable for OXFAM is that they can fund nine films for just $38,000 and this will keep hundreds of people in work and they will then be able to feed their families, so it is better than just arriving with truck loads of food etc. It also means some joy can come into the lives of the broader population through the entertainment the movies provide.

I just do stuff and struggle along. Usually I fund what I am doing through the sale of my paintings rather than film returns but it is a struggle. I do not make enough money to pay much tax so the deduction principle is not a factor.

Do you think that the Sufi man (shown at left) really is 115 years old? Do they keep good timetable records there?


Yes, I have a copy of the Sufi birth certificate . His father was a famous sufi -- not as big as the Dalai Lama, but up there. The birth of his son is, therefore, a part of historic record . The old sufi is so loved there will be a shrine and mosque built around him when he dies and he will achieve sainthood. He is already regarded as a saint. I have not heard of his death (and I would), so he must be pushing 117 by now. I hope to spend some time with him when I go back in a few months. I love him dearly and we have a very special friendship that has nothing to do with Sufism or anything. We just love each other.

How do you spell the name of the actress Kireen (or Kiren, shown below)?

Her name is Kirin. She is not to be confused with NoNo who gets into trouble over the porn. Kirin would be phonetic; it could just be spelled as it sounds: whether Kiren or Kirin does not matter. She took the money she got from working on my film and went to Lahore, where it is safer. About 5 female dancers and actresses that I knew in Peshawar have now been murdered. I think Kirin may have gotten some work in the Lahore Industry, which is still semi functional (it is not part of the Tribal Belt where film is totally outlawed).

What happened to NoNo? Is she still alive and working?
NoNo escaped and made an underground Music CD which really infuriated the Taliban because it was so popular. NoNo remains a good friend, so I am hoping to visit her in hiding, wherever she is. She has a great sense of humour, and we had some really funny times together. I would have to play her father whenever she needed to get out of a car to go to a restroom or something. Women cannot go anywhere unless accompanied by a venerable male relative. I felt I was really 'integrated' when doing this.  But one thing I should tell you about NoNo: She is from a long line of hookers. Her pimp is her mother. They are the top grade girls -- actresses, dancers, and the like. When her little scene of sucking off got out on the internet, this should not have happened. She would never have said yes to doing it if she’d known this. She was so angry when the Taliban threatened her with a jihad that she retaliated by putting out a CD of her song hits, and virtually everyone in Pakistan was listening to her songs. Her family was protecting her within the compound, where she was safe. Then one of the members of her own family was gotten to by the Taliban, and he came in and tried to kill her. She was stabbed twice but was able to fight him off very well, and other family members came to her aid. But now, after this, she feels not safe enough to continue he work. She knows she no longer has security, even within her own family.

Your film grows increasingly dark as it moves along (which is understandable). Instead of saving the best for the last, you've saved the worst. Your final words about a theater of terror, "a world where no one knows who's leading us into war, why we're going there, or if anyone has any vision of why we're doing it" reminded me of the film Gomorrah - with the Taliban taking the place of the mobsters. As in both cultures, there seems to have been an almost complete collapse of the Social Contract. (With the Taliban, it's more like: You do this for us now, and you'll have a great afterlife -- which, like almost all religions, is the ultimate con game.) Any thoughts on how and when the Pakistani people will get their day in the sun?

I have not seen Gomorrah.  I wanted to but missed it . Things got very dark when the Tariq Jamal movie was shut down.  By funding two dramas out of my own pocket I kept the lights on artificially. Obviously , I believe in the power of art or I would not be going back there to help set up the OXFAM project. The PPP, Benazir Bhutto's Party, which won the election after her death, had already done a deal with the Taliban to sacrifice the arts in a compromise that enabled other concessions. I had interviews with PPP about this and it was hard to make myself cut it from the movie. But this kind of knowledge is almost too much for a cinema audience, it is the kind of thing you'd explain in a book. I can also talk about it in interviews -- like this one -- that the film has stimulated.

I am much more worried about Pakistan drawing the world into a cataclysmic conflict of World War III-scale than I am about Afghanistan doing the same thing. It is a huge worry. I wish some decision-makers in the US and Europe would have the time to see Miscreants and ask me to bring some enlightened individuals from places like Peshawar University to some kind of think tank, so the problems could be looked at and possible solutions found. I am doing as much as I can. I have also helped create a scholarship scheme to get brilliant young women through University when they are from poor families that can not afford the fees, etc.

We thank George Gittoes and hope to meet him when he's in NYC for the MoMA screenings, at which we also hope some possible distributors show up.  This film is too important not to be released. Again: the MoMA screenings are February 18 at 8pm in the Titus 1 theater and February 19 at 4pm in Titus 2.


Several of Mr. Gittoes' films are now available via download at the following links: SOUNDTRACK TO WAR : http://mubi.com/films/33089
THE MISCREANTS OF TALLIWOOD : http://mubi.com/films/20628
RAMPAGE: http://mubi.com/films/33090

All photos are from the film itself, courtesy of Mr. Gittoes.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

How can I purchase a DVD copy of the Miscreants of Taliwood? Region 1....

My e-mail es mofongo4@gmail.com

James van Maanen, said...

Hi, Anon--
I have emailed Mr. Gittoes with your request (and sent him your email address), and I hope you will hear back from him with the best (and most affordable) way to get a copy of this terrific documentary/movie. Good luck! If you do not hear back from him, please let me know.

James van Maanen said...

As promised, here are links from which you can download three of Mr. Gittoes' films:

SOUNDTRACK TO WAR: http://mubi.com/films/33089

THE MISCREANTS OF TALLIWOOD: http://mubi.com/films/20628

RAMPAGE: http://mubi.com/films/33090

ikea delivery..just_don't said...

In an age where art and commercialism have been so deliberately and brutally misrepresented as being of equal importance, "The Miscreants of Taliwood" transcends both paradigms and creates its own genre. Even Within the deepest despair of human existence, hope MUST exist. Creativity is the elemental core of hope, the hydrogen of the human spirit. Thank you George Gittoes.