Saturday, August 31, 2013

FIG TREES (2009)—An Evening Class Question for John Greyson

"Engaged solidarity" is the term I would use to describe Canadian visionary John Greyson, who first came to my attention through his lyrical and formally-challenging films, of course, and then later through his staged protest of the Toronto International Film Festival's City to City spotlight on Tel Aviv. With strenuous commitment, Greyson has fought for the rights of others caught in situations where they can barely fight for themselves. In a horrible stroke of unjust irony, Greyson now finds himself in a position where he is dependent upon the solidarity of others to free him and his companion Tarek Loubani from forced incarceration in Egypt.

For those distracted by how Ben Affleck will destroy the Batman franchise, or titillated by Miley Cyrus's flagrant twerking at the MTV Video Music Awards, here's the recap (per Nation's Sarah Woolf): "Award-winning filmmaker John Greyson and emergency room physician Tarek Loubani have been detained in Tora prison, near Cairo, since August 16. The two landed in Cairo on August 15 with the intention of visiting Gaza's largest medical complex, Al-Shifa hospital, where Loubani was to continue medical work and Greyson was to explore the possibility of a new film project. Upon their arrival, the men were unable to make the trip into Gaza because the Egyptian government had closed the Rafah crossing the previous Monday, citing security reasons. (Rafah is Gaza's only access point to the rest of the world, other than the tightly controlled borders with Israel).

"The pair decided to stay in Cairo and await the border's reopening. The following night, the men apparently became lost after curfew and stopped at a police station to ask for directions to their hotel. At around 10:00PM Cairo time, Justin Podur, their emergency contact, received a ten-second phone call from Loubani: 'We're being arrested. It's the Egyptian police. Call the Consulate. I have to go.' "

As of today's date, August 31, 2013, the two Canadians have been unlawfully detained for two weeks, and counting. Efforts to secure their release have been mounted through a dedicated website, online petitions via and LabourStart, and ongoing statements of support from around the world. If you've not already done so, please consider signing these petitions and adding your own statement of support.

On Wednesday, November 14, 2012, Greyson was invited by the Pacific Film Archive to their screening of his opera-documentary Fig Trees (2009), where I seized the opportunity to ask Greyson a question of personal concern.

* * *

Michael Guillén: John, it's so wonderful to have you here in Berkeley to talk about your film Fig Trees. This is my third time to see it. Its complexity continues to sparkle and its inversions become more articulate each time I see it; but, it is a very difficult film for me to talk about and to ask you a question about, so please pardon me if I'm not so articulate.

As a film within the documentary genre, I am struck by the notion that it conforms to recent discussions regarding "elevated genre." Fig Trees elevates the documentary genre. I'm equally struck by your refusal to cater to melodrama. I know that when I first saw it—and I had, of course, watched whatever films were available on AIDS activism—I was surprised that I wasn't more emotionally overwhelmed. I'm a long-time survivor of HIV since 1986 and—this time watching Fig TreesZackie Achmat's comment that at one point you have to stop performing death and pay attention to the fact that you're going to live resonates particularly for me.

All these years later, I find myself in a peculiar position regarding this period of activism, the 1980s, as a period of time that is being forgotten or presumed resolved. My question is: as someone who is informed on AIDS activism, where does the activism stand now? What are we called to do now with regard to the issue of HIV and AIDS?

John Greyson: I'm glad you asked that because one of the triggers for us to put Tim McCaskell into the documentary came out of a graduate course I was teaching. I showed them some excerpts from the installation on which the film was based. Although the installation focused on AIDS in Africa, part of the installation likewise featured the same queer content you see in Fig Trees. A student raised his hand and said, "I don't understand why there's all this gay stuff in relation to AIDS. AIDS is an African thing, right?" This was a well-meaning, thoughtful student; but, his question revealed that for twentysomethings there is little awareness of the "gay plague" and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s in North America. His question was so dumbfounding to me and I thought, "Man, just to tell Zackie's story isn't enough. Things get erased so quickly."

One of the great things that has happened more recently these past couple of years, maybe this year in particular, is that there are a number of compilation documentaries that have been made about AIDS activism and this period of the late '80s-early '90s within the American movement; David France's How To Survive A Plague (2012), for example. I haven't seen this yet; but, I'm sure it's an extraordinary distillation of all of the energy of video activism at the time. At the time, there was an outpouring of hundreds of thousands of videos that we thought would be around forever but, of course, they immediately fell off the cliff. But compilation films like How to Survive A Plague will live on and preserve some of that.

In terms of AIDS activism today, AIDS action continues to be active in Toronto where both Tim McCaskell and I have ended up doing a lot of activism around queer solidarity with Palestine, which has been a sort of sideways move. It's interesting because—as you know from Fig Trees—Tim started in anti-Apartheid work in South Africa. Now he's doing anti-Apartheid work with regard to Israel-Palestine; but, he's also continued doing AIDS activism where his focus is at a local level with particular populations. It's a very similar situation here in the States, I think, where HIV in prisons remains an incredible crisis. HIV among first nation peoples continues to be a real concern, what with the number of new infections among young gay men.

We're going through this particular fight against the aggressive criminalization against any partner who doesn't fully inform. The definitions for that have been set by the courts in the most draconian way so that—if full declaration isn't made when sleeping with somebody—the courts will step in and define what "full declaration" is. There has been a lot of mobilization and organization around these legal issues. The work continues, which is great. For my twentysomething students who think AIDS is only an African problem, some of these public campaigns have been useful.

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