There are 56 definitions offered for the word “cover” in the Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2nd edition, 1993), with the 13th definition applied to journalism (where a journalist is assigned to “cover” a story) and the 51st definition applied to music (where a musician is said to “cover” another’s song). Immediately following the musical definition, is one for mathematics wherein a “cover” refers to “a collection of sets having the property that a given set is contained in the union of the sets in the collection.” That 52nd definition—along with its journalistic and musical variants—could equally apply to John Greyson’s experimental short Covered, which is at once intricately journalistic, musical and mathematic.
Originally slated in TIFF’s Short Cuts Canada program and billed as “an inspired experimental documentary on the violent closing of the first Queer Sarajevo Festival”, Greyson has pulled Covered from the official selection at TIFF in protest against their inaugural City-to-City Spotlight on Tel Aviv and in solidarity with the Palestinian call for a boycott against the Israeli government. Greyson has, instead, made Covered available online at Vimeo for the duration of the festival (until September 19th, 2009). Greyson likewise pulled his film Fig Trees from this year’s Tel Aviv GLBT Festival.
Greyson’s principled protest has been laid out in his letter to festival heads Piers Handling, Noah Cowan and Cameron Bailey. His concern that TIFF’s cooperation with the Brand Israel campaign (launched in Toronto) ignores such socio-political realities as “the devastating Gaza massacre of eight months ago, resulting in over 1000 civilian deaths; the election of a Prime Minister accused of war crimes; the aggressive extension of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands; the accelerated destruction of Palestinian homes and orchards; the viral growth of the totalitarian security wall, and the further enshrining of the check-point system” leads to his criticism that “this isn't the right year to celebrate Brand Israel, or to demonstrate an ostrich-like indifference to the realities (cinematic and otherwise) of the region, or to pointedly ignore the international economic boycott campaign against Israel.” Greyson questions whether “such an uncritical celebration of Tel Aviv right now [isn’t] akin to celebrating Montgomery buses in 1963, California grapes in 1969, Chilean wines in 1973, Nestles infant formula in 1984, or South African fruit in 1991?”; boycott campaigns that “were specific and strategic to their historic moments, and certainly complex.”
Covered itself is a complex intertext that combines split screen imagery and multiple visual and aural registers to examine the brutal homophobic violence levied against the first Queer Sarajevo Festival. Greyson situates his examination through avian folklore, covers of popular songs that feature bird imagery, and his own “cover” of Susan Sontag’s cultural criticism. This last element—excerpts from an essay by Susan Sontag about cultural responses to war, entitled “Covered: the Sound of Solidarity”—is perhaps the film’s most intriguing critique and edges the film towards an alterity that nears sheer poetry. Greyson’s self-reflexive and appropriative homage to Sontag is encapsulated perfectly in his poised quote: “Covers must walk a line between tribute and treachery, paying heartfelt homage even as they betray the author with a musical kiss.”
Though it’s unfortunate that I’m not able to see Covered on a large screen, and though I appreciate being able to view the film on Vimeo, I respect Greyson’s commitment to use a cultural boycott to address his protest against cultural propaganda. If—as has been suggested in Raphaël Nadjari’s A History of Israeli Cinema—cinema anticipates (or should anticipate) awareness of the need for socio-political change, then current controversies such as Greyson’s withdrawl of Covered from TIFF09, and the recent uproar over Rachel at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, belie changes anxious to unfold.
Michael Sicinski's review of Covered can be found here (scroll to the bottom). “Using split-screen and juxtaposing taxidermy exhibits with amateur YouTube performances of favorite songs, Greyson enacts a dialectic between official, institutional culture and the way actual individuals make things matter on a visceral level. ...Greyson demonstrates the awkward power of amateur cover-versions of these songs, since they both pay homage to fame and shadow it with rank normalcy.”
Cross-published on Twitch.