Photo by Dominic Burr
In an atelier and gallery space on Torstraße, there lives a maverick who has spent much of his adult life documenting the world’s wars on paper, film and canvas. The Australian-born artist/filmmaker George Gittoes’ “anti-war film trilogy” was screened at ufaFabrik in March: it comprises The Miscreants of Taliwood, which was shot along the Taliban-controlled border between Pakistan and Afghanistan; the Bagdad-set Soundtrack to War, which Michael Moore borrowed parts of for his Fahrenheit 9/11; and Rampage, which is set in ‘war-zone America’, i.e. Miami.
We sat down amongst his large, brightly colored paintings – all featuring gruesome depictions of warfare and death - to listen to the unstoppable sexagenarian who’s covered “virtually every conflict in the 20th and 21st century from Cambodia and Rwanda to Iraq and Afghanistan”.
How would define your style?
Young people dig my films because I put performance art and all kinds of crazy stuff [in them]. Young people are not interested in straight documentaries anymore, and I can do that MTV style. Young people don’t watch the news anymore, they watch VH1 and the comedy channel. So I pitched it to MTV and VH1 and I made Soundtrack to War - I made a film about what the soldiers were listening to when they were in Iraq. It was the first film that showed the MTV generation of soldiers at war.
Do you consider yourself a journalist?
My background and perspective is that of an artist. I am much more interested in the form… I just believe in creating stuff. When I go to Bagdad, I don’t stay in any of the hotels that the Germans stay in, I stay outside of the green zone. The people who rent [the rooms to me] say “Oh Mister George, Mister George, it’s so good to see you, everyone who is here is trying to destroy our country, they are destroying everything, but you’re here creating.” So it’s good if there is at least one person creating something in this vast military machine! I’ll be back in Afghanistan in April for my next film. That’s pretty much my life: I am much more comfortable in war zones than I am in civil society.
What is it that makes you go to war zones again and again?
I’m sorry, but if you really are against war and you want to see humans evolve into something through creativity rather than destruction, you cannot do it from a safe place. Then, once you are in the war zone, no one asks questions and you are doing what you do. It’s an escape from normal reality. It’s so vibrant, so real. Some people say, “You love that rush”, and that’s not fair. That’s not true. You have to take something from yourself every time that you do it. It’s terrifying to be in these situations - all your adrenaline kicks in to keep you alive.
What do you hope to show with your work?
I’ve got access to these places, and I’ve got contacts and networks, and when I filmed Miscreants - well, I don’t know anyone else in the world who’s not a Pashtun who could have traveled where I had to go to film this film. You go in there and give people an insight into the people in that world, and you are doing your job with humor and personality and you make people see them and like them: they are not just some kind of anonymous fundamentalists any longer… I think that it is important for people like me to be a bridge between the two cultures. Instead, all these military people just want to blow things up.
Like now, in Afghanistan?
I just believe that culture is a really important thing… and they spend millions and millions on a stealth bomber. It’s almost impossible for someone to say, “Hey, the Taliban closed down the local film industry, why don’t we give them some money to help them get started again?” No, they’d rather put money into bombs and a predator fighter. What I meant is, assisting Pakistani and Afghan culture to grow is a much better way to fix things than going over there and killing people.
How has your relationship with violence evolved over the years?
People look at me and they want to see a man struggling, with haunted eyes… At some point along the way, I found that I could witness all of this horror without causing destruction. I’ve never killed anyone and if I need to save someone’s life, I do. The truth is you cannot kill someone without killing part of your soul, and sadly all of these soldiers don’t discover that until they’ve actually done it. I can’t count the times I’ve had young soldiers on my chest, crying all night because they’ve killed someone for the first time. Society tells them it’s not killing if you are killing for your country, but that is not what their souls say. And ultimately, the society which sends them into this situation is responsible for that.
I think America has had a curse on it since the Civil War. I come from Australia where we’ve never had a civil war, and it’s such a different thing there - you don’t let soldiers go off to war lightly. It’s not just something that will damage the soldiers, it will damage you, it will damage your country. I think America is seeing that now.