Oliver Stone reckoned that the first casualty of war is innocence, and if George Gittoes’ documentary Snow Monkey is anything to go by, he was right. Gittoes, a war photographer who has spent decades in war zones around the world, persuades young Afghani children in Jalalabad to join his Yellow House collective and make films in an effort to get them off the streets.
It may sound like The Act of Killing crossed with Bugsy Malone, but Gittoes seems more interested in the lives of the children themselves than the films that they’re making. Their stories are all heartbreaking; none more so than six-year-old Gul Mina, who drags a sack bigger than her through the streets collecting empty cans for cash. Even the pathologically violent Steel, who carries razor blades and a syringe supposedly contaminated with AIDS, elicits our sympathy – he is just as much a victim as the people he intimidates for their money.
Gittoes presents their stories as almost parodically Dickensian, but the interspersed footage of executions and bombings – some of it captured by the children themselves – brings us back to Earth with a sobering crash. It’s a shame that we get little political context: at one point the Yellow House receives a visit from a high-ranking member of the Taliban, but he leaves with as little ceremony as he arrives. Most frustrating of all is Gittoes’ insistence on inserting himself into his own film – surely the first thing any good war photographer is told not to do.
The director’s self-indulgence will frustrate some, and at 170 minutes long it inevitably feels flabby in places, but you’d need a heart of stone to not be moved be Snow Monkey – a rich, uneven tapestry of how living in a warzone can rob children of the chance to be children.
DIRECTOR: George Gittoes
SYNOPSIS: By giving voice to some of war’s most neglected victims, Snow Monkey takes us into an Afghanistan we have not seen before.