Anyone who has seen one or more of what could be termed the new wave of Australian filmmaking, that includes films such as Animal Kingdom and the more recent Partisan will know what I mean when attempting to describe the nightmare effect that follows George Gittoes’ Snow Monkey through the slums and markets of Jalalabad – like the colours and sounds produced by the National Geographic, but with behind it a feeling like the slow scraping of a rusty metal sheet, or the erratic and muffled cries of some mysterious agony.
The film more than anything feels very wide, very vast, and very long. While throughout this vastness it manages to retain an eerie and uncomfortable sense of incoherence, which somehow invokes an equally uncomfortable sense of unease and dread.
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The main story seems to be (and is described as being in a summary it was given) a story about a group of young Afghan boys on a mission to make a film in the Afghani style, amidst what seems to be impossible circumstances. In a sense, the filmmaker, Gittoes, has taken it upon himself to help the boys realise their ambition. All of this makes one expect a gritty but motivational tale of creativity’s attempt to overcome hardship. But from the beginning it is already clear that Gittoes had something very different in mind. It is also very clear than he doesn’t wish to be seen as a Good Samaritan or some kind of a white saint. In fact, in the midst of Jalalabad’s heavy and oppressive reality, his approach seems very fitting.
Indeed, it is true that a large chunk of the film involves a group of young boys making a film, albeit one defined by obscure fight scenes and a non-existent plot. But Snow Monkey travels far from this story, visiting a local gangster called Steel, two infant siblings, apparently orphans, who collect tin cans for money, a Taliban leader, terrorism in general, and the so-called “Yellow House” where Gittoes and his partner indulge in absurd performances etc. Gittoes, an impenetrable and questionable figure, succeeds in weaving everything together quite remarkably to create a story of harness, ruthlessness and struggle in a world where anything goes; a world where small pockets of hope are placed up against a kind of cold-hearted antagonism.
The camera moves across the landscape in an erratic fashion, jumping from scene to scene alongside and within the overall atmosphere of Jalalabad. Empty spaces where gangsters rule the streets, beggars heave themselves over busy roads, and hardened children chain-smoke cigarettes. Every angle is sharp, every surface is rough. There is nothing kind or gentle in Snow Monkey. The gradual creation of the street boys’ film presents itself as the faintest glimmer of optimism in what Gittoes’ film portrays and a cold-hearted and murderous world. Even Steel softens when he is involved in the Kung Fu scenes, a triumphant smile over his face when he is congratulated.
There is a certain level of amazement digesting how much a person can take before the childish innocence is erased, before the children involved in producing their beloved film, collecting tin cans, giving food to limbless beggars, and beaming into the camera, become the emptied figures of ruined and broken Afghan men roaming the parks, intoxicated, shooting up, or drinking themselves to death.
Watch the trailer for Snow Monkey here: