Interview : George Gittoes

Guy Davis speaks to the “Rampage” helmer


You can’t make this shit up – kids in the hardscrabble Miami suburb known as ‘Brown Sub’ are volunteering for the US army, willingly putting themselves in the line of fire by getting shipped over to Iraq, because life in a war zone is safer than life in their own neighbourhood. According to the young residents of Brown Sub interviewed by Australian filmmaker, artists and war correspondent George Gittoes for his new documentary “Rampage”, the options for getting out of the hood are limited. There might be sporting scholarships or hip-hop careers for a fortunate few; otherwise it’s the military, prison or death. Welcome to what one reviewer has called “Miami without the pastel suits and palm trees”, welcome to a part of the richest and most powerful country in the world where there are as many homeless people as there are people with homes.

At the heart of “Rampage” are the Lovett brothers. Gittoes met eldest brother Elliot during the making of his previous film, “Soundtrack to War”, which featured Elliot during his tour of duty in Iraq. Highlighting Elliot’s skills as a rapper, the film was shown on MTV and VHI (“it reached 87 million people with its first few screenings,” claims Gittoes) and made Elliot something of a local hero back in Brown Sub. And when he heard from several young soldiers that the “off the chain” Miami was more dangerous than Baghdad during the making of “Soundtrack to War”, Gittoes decided to investigate this all-American war zone, with Elliot as his guide. Upon arriving in Brown Sub, Elliot is reunited with his younger brothers – 16-year-old Marcus has what Gittoes calls a Shakespearean gift for language, while 14-year-old Denzell is an ambitious and amazingly talented hip-hop star in the making. Articulate, intelligent and driven, the Lovett brothers would appear to have what it takes to transcend their tough circumstances…but a tragic twist in “Rampage’s” tale demonstrates that getting out of Brown Sub is far from easy.

“Rampage” had its origins when Gittoes brought together young Iraqi hip-hop fans and the rapping men and women of the American armed forces during the making of Soundtrack to War. “In the first few days of the invasion, some freestylers came in and the kids followed me down to see them,” says Gittoes. “These guys would be rapping off the top of their domes and the kids would be loving it. Then one smart kid said ‘Hey, you’re African-American. Didn’t Tupac say all armies were gangs? Shouldn’t you fight for your people rather than the government or the police?’ And these guys, who adored Tupac, would be embarrassed – they’d pull me aside and say ‘Look, you’ve got to explain to these kids that we’re not supporters of George Bush. We’re in the army because it was either this or jail or because the army is safer than where we come from’. It was true that there were soldiers from Chicago or Compton or the Bronx who felt that it was safer for them in Baghdad. I know the statistics about Florida – that it had become the murder capital of America, that it had the highest homicide rate. I also knew that no one, including myself, would be there if it wasn’t for Jeb Bush and the vote in Florida, so I decided to investigate that and answer the kids’ questions by showing where these soldiers had come from and why they were really in the army.”

The Miami Gittoes presents in “Rampage” is a far cry from the glitz and glamour one has come to associate with the city. “They promote the tourist side of the city,” agrees Gittoes. “But one of the most poignant moments for me in making the film is when Denzell says that he’s never been to the beach and has never seen the sea. I covered apartheid in South Africa, experienced the segregation in places like Johannesburg, and this was the same.” The apartheid in America, however, is economically enforced. “These guys don’t own cars, and there’s no public transport,” says Gittoes. “The cost of a meal in South Beach is equivalent to a couple of weeks’ worth of the money these kids get. In the movie, where the kids say ‘Our bellies are full, we’ve eaten’, that’s not just rap line. They were proud of that because they had a mother who was able to get them one meal a day, whereas a lot of them were only getting two meals a week. And if they strip down to take a swim, they’re as skinny as kids from Somalia.”

In Gittoes’ eyes, the US war effort is directly responsible for much of the hardship in areas like Brown Sub. “They are suffering because of this war where America’s spending one-and-a-half billion dollars a week on top of their existing military budget and cutting back on food stamps. People are starving, people are being made homeless because government housing is ceasing to exist,” he says. What’s worse, however, is that many of the people in places such as Brown Sub seem to have succumbed to hopelessness and despair. “A lot of people who in the past would have been members of the civil rights movement have just given up,” says Gittoes. “As you see in the movie, I was then when Diddy came through with his ‘Vote Or Die’ car and it had no effect – [Bush opponent] John Kerry didn’t have a single black face on his team, so the people of Brown Sub felt disenfranchised. They felt closer to George Bush, even though they hated his policies, than this rich boy Kerry.”

It’s testament to the rapport that Gittoes established with the Lovett family that this middle-aged white guy was able to get such an in-depth look at everyday life in an African-American neighbourhood. Gittoes concedes that he would not have been welcome in Brown Sub without the relationship he’d formed with Elliot during the making of Soundtrack to War. He also admits that he came into the neighbourhood as Elliot’s “spoils of war”, in a way: “I was a person who could get his brother Denzell a record deal and get him out of the hood.”

The way Gittoes explains it, though, it seems that Brown Sub also saw the filmmaker as a way of gaining exposure for themselves and their way of life. “I went in as the guy who could open doors,” he says. “When I go into the Lovett house, everyone was rapping at me because I was the person who could get them a rap deal, which is their dream. If you can’t get a sports scholarship, the only other possibility is rap. Then there’s death, jail or the army.” And when tragedy struck the Lovett family during the filming of Rampage – without a single mention of the incident in the local media – Gittoes was compelled to continue telling the story. “These people are used to not being acknowledged by America, and that’s why this film is so important – it’s about the people and the problems the American politicians don’t want you to know exist,” he says.

Since completing “Rampage”, Gittoes has continued working with Denzell in the hope of landing the young rapper a record deal. Comparing it to “working with a young Picasso or a young Arthur Rimbaud”, he says “I’ve become very important to him because I’m a music producer as well as a filmmaker, so literally every time he writes a new rap he calls me and does it for me over the phone. It’s almost become a daily collaboration, and he keeps reaching higher and higher levels – since making the movie, his raps have gone light years beyond the raps in the movie. When we finally get a deal to make an album, I’m looking forward to being there and collaborating with him. He’s just extraordinary”.

And as for the other residents of Brown Sub, Gittoes has hope. “I don’t despair for them,” he says. “I believe that culturally they’re so much richer than us that they’d actually be poorer if they had what we have. As someone who’s covered conflict my whole life, I actually have a better sense of hope than most people. I’ve seen Cambodia gain democracy after the Khmer Rouge. I was beaten up by racists in South Africa and lived to see Mandela become president – I was there the day he was inaugurated. I was in Nicaragua during the worst days of the revolution; now it’s a tourist attraction. So I have a lot of hope – this latest US election has given me a lot of hope.”

And “Rampage”, Gittoes believes, has played a small role in keeping that hope alive: “It’s going to be another nail in the Bush administration’s coffin,” he laughs.

- GUY DAVIS

Rampage opens in selected cinemas this Thursday.