Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Gittoes at AFA: The Miscreants of Taliwood

If the Taliban mullahs want to call you something heavy, they will probably label you a miscreant (a villainous heretic). Unfortunately for entertainment-starved Pakistanis, just about everyone involved in artistic endeavors are automatically considered miscreants, most definitely including actors and filmmakers. Ironically though, the cottage Pashto film industry was largely based in the Taliban stronghold of Peshawar, which is where Australian filmmaker-artist George Gittoes took his camera for an up-close and personal look at militant intolerance in The Miscreants of Taliwood (trailer here), which screens during Anthology Film Archives’s upcoming retrospective of Gittoes gonzo-ish filmmaking.

If truth be told, Gittoes was probably fortunate to live through the first thirty seconds of Miscreants. Fortunately, he was only roughed up a bit while filming Islamists building a bonfire of CDs and DVDs in Islamabad, a city that Gittoes reminds viewers contains nuclear weapons. However, as Gittoes pursues his story, he becomes increasingly a part of his own film, at considerably further risk to his own well being.

While it is ordinarily annoying to see filmmakers inject themselves into their own documentaries, Gittoes was hardly motivated by self-aggrandizement. To gain access to the world of Pashto filmmaking, he became an actor himself, forming a fast friendship with his co-star Javed Musazai. When the Taliban terrorized Taliwood into submission, Gittoes finances two films on his own, in order to keep the documentary going. Though hardly well-heeled, Gittoes is able to scrape together seven grand, sufficient funds for two Pashto films.

Frankly, Gittoes’s self-financed Pashto films look dreadful (particularly his comedy) and the director is the first to admit he is an awful actor. Based on the clips seen in Miscreants, Pashto cinema in general looks like low rent Bollywood, if that, but Gittoes offers an important caveat. Pakistani filmmaking is in its infancy, and it will presumably develop in interesting directions, provided the Islamist authorities allow it the basic freedom to exist.

Gittoes probably risked bringing a fatwa down on his head simply for championing “Miscreant” filmmaking as an infidel outsider. However, Miscreants delves far deeper, addressing sensitive cultural subjects no previous film has had the guts to touch. Pulling no punches, Gittoes explains how the extreme segregation of the sexes caused most men in the North-West provinces to go on the down-low, regularly engaging in homosexual sex, despite their hetero orientation. Again, Gittoes is probably lucky to be alive.

Miscreants is a blockbuster doc that alternates between moments of high camp and utter horror. Viewers should understand from the outset that the film often reflects the idiosyncratic aesthetics of Gittoes’s Taliwood colleagues. The result is unlike anything most viewers have seen before, particularly in a deadly serious documentary.

Even if you are not easily surprised, there are moments in the film that will drop any jaw. From midget comedians to mad mullahs, Miscreants pretty much has it all. It is also one of the few documentaries that can legitimately be called bold, since Gittoes undeniably put himself in harm’s way to make it. Highly recommended, it is the can’t-miss selection AFA’s retrospective, screening Friday (11/4) and Saturday (11/5) at the landmark theater.