John Greyson is the Godard of Canadian cinema. You may think of stronger contenders, but only Greyson comes close to Godard's unabashed disregard, artistic and economic, for the audience-coddling that is now part and parcel of every filmmaker's job. Greyson makes movies he believes in, and figures the smarter audiences will find him.
From his award-winning international hit Lilies (easily his most accessible feature), to his controversial "AIDS musical" Zero Patience, to his stints as guest director on Queer as Folk and Made in Canada, Greyson has tantalized audiences with his cut-and-paste technique and theatrical flair. Conversely, Greyson has also made films designed not to be seen by mass audiences such as Uncut, the 1997 film wherein he intentionally broke copyright laws in order to challenge the notion of intellectual ownership (the film is rarely shown).
Greyson's latest feature, Fig Trees opening at Toronto's Inside Out Film Festival next week after winning best documentary at the Berlin Film Festival is a non-linear documentary-cum-opera that will appeal to both art-house hipsters and mainstream moviegoers.
A strange hybrid of reportage and postmodern musical, Fig Trees follows the lives of two prominent AIDS activists while illuminating their political positions via reworked pop songs, a mini-opera based on an opera written by Gertrude Stein, superimposed visual art displays, and a singing boy dressed as a white squirrel. Honest.
Could one say that after the success of Lilies in 1996, you were offered the keys to Hollywood? Why didn't you take them in your hot little hands?
The "what if" game is so not fun. And I don't know that it's about deciding not to do that I knew I was going to stay here, in Canada, so that fundamentally determined things. Right after Lilies I made Uncut, which was self-produced, super under the radar, so I've always been interested in the back-and-forth [between mainstream-ish and art films] and mostly, in the last stretch, it's been more forth. That's where my heart lies.
Fig Trees is the latest in a series of experiments wherein you've paired opera with contemporary and contentious issues. Is the goal to give opera back to the people, negate its elitist tendencies?
Yeah! I mean, I come from a place of never having been an opera fan, and sort of forcing myself to discover what is great about it. … The thing that was fun about Fig Trees was that Dave [Wall, the composer] has always loved opera, from the age of 3 on, and we bonded over the Gertrude Stein opera, which we both love in every way, because it was completely against the grain for its day, and we wanted to carry that tradition forward. The other thing we became interested in is the persistent strain of social activism within opera. Opera is aesthetically often very conservative, but very radical stories are told within those confines. And it helps that the stories are in languages most of us don't speak!
Do you think Western culture is de-gaying AIDS, so to speak, because poor children in developing countries are more palatable to potential donors?
At the level of the Red Campaign and Bono? Absolutely. One of the many things wrong about these campaigns, like Red, is the message that you buy some sneakers here to save people there. … AIDS became domesticated probably around the same time that protease inhibitors were introduced, the mid-nineties. AIDS went from being "isn't Elizabeth Taylor brave to have her benefits" to absolutely mainstream, the same way cancer became domesticated in the 1960s. Great, but at what cost?
Well, what cost?
The erasure of critique. What was the AIDS movement about? The AIDS movement was about a fundamental critique of health care and power, about who decides what goes in our bodies. And now we've given so much power back to the medical establishment. But I don't know if it's accurate to say AIDS work in the West has been de-gayified. A lot of the international activism is queer. As much as there are Bill Gates and Bill Clinton and Bono holding press conferences, there is still a level of street activism that is super.
Why do people pick on Bono?
Poor Bono, he just can't get a break! Can't they just leave him alone! Ha! There's no question he's an easy, hard to miss, super big target. What would be the single, most defining thing to define the West's relationship to Africa and to AIDS? Bono? Yes, you have the more enlightened stuff, like Stephen Lewis's work, or Doctors Without Borders, but what I really wanted to go after was the consumerism, the "let's buy our way out of an epidemic" with red T-shirts. The whole film asks, "Why do we sing about AIDS?" I was fascinated to learn that there's a whole subculture that reads Bono's song One as an AIDS anthem.
You sing about AIDS in Fig Trees.
No, no, it's the same question for me! I think we sing about AIDS for good reasons. I just want to ask why, because I think there's a lot of uncritical responses. … Song is fascinating, as much for what it accomplishes as what it doesn't accomplish. We go back to the beginning in the film, to that absolutely head-scratching question: Why is there no opera about AIDS? Of all the 20th-century stories, what could be more tailor fit to this medium of high tragedy and excess?
Fig Trees screens May 21 at 9:30 p.m. at the Isabel Bader Theatre.
March, 1960, Nelson, B.C.
Not giving up his day job
Greyson currently teaches film at Toronto's York University.
One of his lesser-known projects is 14.3 Seconds, a compilation of celluloid salvaged from the Iraqi Film Archive after it was destroyed by U.S. bombs in 2003. To view it, go to www.year01.com/transmedia2959.
Always the activist
He recently declined an invitation to show Fig Trees at the Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival. Greyson, a member of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, told the organizer, "I feel I must join the many Jews and non-Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, queers and otherwise, who are part of the growing global BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement against Israeli apartheid. … Cultural boycott worked in South Africa's case, and led directly to the sweeping changes and activism that Fig Trees celebrates in song."