Artist on war, death and a visit from the Taliban

As a child, artist and filmmaker George Gittoes staged puppet shows for the local kids in his backyard.

One weekend he managed to gather an audience of 300, so his father passed around a hat to raise money for the Red Cross.

“That’s what changed everything for me,” Gittoes tells Jane Hutcheon on One Plus One.

“That was the greatest feeling I ever had, to know that my art was translating into something that helped people.”

Today, Gittoes and his partner, singer and musician Hellen Rose, run The Yellow House in Jalalabad, Afghanistan — a safe space for artists to meet and work away from the destructive forces that threaten their lives and the lives of the Afghans around them.

Gittoes has survived war, death threats and has seen a side of the Afghanistan conflict few foreigners get to witness.

He is a straight talker who believes he is one of a kind.

“There’s only one George Gittoes [and] I hate war. I’d hate to ever be seen as an adrenaline junkie,” he says.

“You can imagine the amount of death and horror that I’ve seen. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

“As human beings, more artists should be like me, going out and creating in the face of destruction.”

School of hard knocks

Growing up in Rockdale in southern Sydney, Gittoes was heavily influenced by his grandfather, who was a boxing and racehorse trainer.

He taught him street fighting, and one day paid a pair of much older boys to beat George up.

“They said don’t take this personally, your grandfather paid us to do it,” Gittoes says.

But he still sees the positives in his grandfather’s teaching.

“What he taught me, has enabled me to sleep on hard ground, be injured, face the things that I have.

“Plus more often than not, when someone comes at you with the intent of killing you and you show no fear, that will save you.”

It is a lesson he has put into practice during decades of travel to warzones.

He was given access to armies in Somalia, Cambodia and Tarin Kot, where he was able to go out with soldiers on patrol.

“They compare me to Charles Bean, the journalist who went with the soldiers in WW1, and I’ve seen that as my role,” he says.

He also had to keep his cool when Taliban leader Mawlawi Jalaluddin Haqqani paid a visit to The Yellow House.

“It was a very scary day, suddenly we got a message that he was coming with his soldiers,” Gittoes says.

“I thought that could be the day that George Gittoes gets his head cut off.

“He came through with his black turban on and he’s very severe, lots of guns. I sat him down in our secret garden cafe and he detailed the investigation they’d done into me.

“I thought ‘this feels really bad’. He was detailing all the activities he’d discovered we’d done.

“He said we’ve decided that you’re a good person and that what you’re doing is for Afghanistan, we’ll protect you and no-one will harm The Yellow House.

“Boy, were we relieved.”

The Yellow House Mission

The Yellow House in Jalalabad is the second of that name. The first was established in the 1970s at Potts Point in inner Sydney by Gittoes and other artists including Gittoes’ friend Martin Sharp.

But after a spell, performing puppet shows at the Yellow House didn’t give Gittoes that same satisfaction he had felt as a child, so he wrote to Mother Teresa for guidance.

He got a letter back, which said: “George, if you use the talents God’s given you and you use them for other people, you’ll be a very happy, fulfilled old man.”

“I’ve [taken] her advice,” Gittoes says.

During his travels through ‘terror central’ in Pakistan, he saw the clash of fundamentalism and entertainment.

“It was like the way Hitler burned books and called most good art degenerate art. I went to war for the artists,” he says.

In 2011, Gittoes decided to make Afghanistan his base. He became known to other artists, and soon a group from Jalalabad asked him to help claim back the arts in Afghanistan.

“And I just did. I realised that this is a place where there are no film schools, no galleries, no outlet, and certainly women were not being trained to have a voice in radio and television.”

That’s why the Yellow House in Jalalabad is focused on film production and training women in film work.

“Women can’t gather with men anywhere. And to even have people in a hall, there’s a chance of a suicide bomb, particularly if you’re doing arts or theatre. But we can make films and we can get them out into people’s homes,” he says.

“I decided it was only worth doing this if we made films that featured women. Female actresses, their stories. And yet women are not allowed to go to video stores to buy them.”

To distribute the films on DVD, Gittoes enlisted young boys who move door to door selling ice-creams in carts. He documents this in his award-winning documentary Snow Monkey.

“We put our posters on the carts and it’s been enormously successful, the women come out and they buy the movies over the fence.”

He’s also encouraged Afghan women to write, direct and act in the films.

“The men come home and they see women who are going to university and powerful role models, their daughters say hey dad we want to go to school.

“It’s creating a lot of social change, and it’s doing it in a very peaceful way.”

Family business

Gittoes’ partner, Hellen Rose, also conducts workshops at The Yellow House for women.

“She’d rather be there getting shot at than worrying about me back here in Australia,” Gittoes says.

He also has two children from a previous relationship. Both children are now adults.

“It’s almost like the family business. My kids are totally behind me and they’re very brave too.”

He loves coming back to Australia, and equally meeting Australians on his travels.

“There’s something about Australians, you find them everywhere. They’re with Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Red Cross, all over the world caring,” he says.

“That’s what my work’s about, it’s an expression of that part of Australians that really does care about the rest of the world.”

Last year, George Gittoes was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize for exposing injustice as an artist, activist and filmmaker. His memoir, Blood Mystic, will be published later this year.

For the full interview with Jane Hutcheon, watch One Plus One at 10:00am on Friday on ABC TV and 5:30pm on Saturday on ABC News 24.

Source: ABC News (Australia)