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John Greyson
John Greyson

On Film, Politics, History and AIDS

Acclaimed Canadian director John Greyson, known for making arresting, unorthodox films with socially charged messages, will visit Haverford College on March 14 to screen and talk about Fig Trees. This experimental “documentary opera” features two real-life AIDS activists, one Canadian and one South African, and a story narrated by a singing squirrel. The following day, March 15, Greyson will also take part in a panel discussion about history, film, politics and AIDS, with Jesse Weaver Shipley, assistant professor of anthropology at Haverford, and University of Texas scholar Neville Hoad. (Times and locations of the two events are here.)

Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of History Farid Azfar,  organized the screening and panel with Vicki Funari, a documentary filmmaker and visiting instructor in Independent College Programs. We talked to Azfar about the Greyson’s work and the themes he expects the panel discussion to explore.

Why did you want to screen Fig Trees at Haverford?

Farid Azfar: It is a beautiful, complicated, intellectually powerful and morally provocative piece of work which pushes the genre of the documentary film to its outermost limits, conceptually as well as aesthetically. It is challenging, original and utterly uncompromising—unlike anything I have ever seen myself. It is a film that works on several levels: first, by narrating an important political struggle and capturing a moment in time; second, by playing with the mechanics of narration and commenting on its own effort at capturing this moment, thus grappling with some very ‘big’ questions of memory, time, justice, truth, and power.

Greyson is known as an activist filmmaker and a provocative figure. How would you describe his work to someone who is not familiar with it?

FA: I would describe it as being irrepressibly eclectic and fearlessly boundary-crossing. We have Proteus, a film about two men who were executed for sodomy in eighteenth-century Robben Island (near current-day Cape Town); Zero Patience, in which Victorian scientist Richard Burton falls in love with the ghost of ‘Patient Zero’; The Making of ‘Monsters’, in which Bertolt Brecht, depicted as a catfish, directs a film about a gay high school teacher murdered by five Torontonian adolescents; and Lilies, set in a 1950s Quebec prison, which similarly describes acts of violence that result from the suppression of love between men. There is, throughout, a restless desire to jump across genres and an equal restlessness with the boundaries that separate past and present, man and beast, truth and fiction. There is no other director who—in my knowledge, at least—has so successfully marshaled the surreal, the comic and the avant-garde in handling topics of such seriousness and gravity, topics that induce a kind of rage that lends itself typically to a certain kind of stylistic literalism. These, I think, are some of the reasons why his work has been so profoundly influential; why Greyson is considered a key figure of New Queer Cinema.

What are some of the areas you anticipate the panel discussion will touch on regarding “film, history, politics and AIDS”?

FA: There is a long history of AIDS in film: Parting Glances; The Living End; Philadelphia; Love! Valour! Compassion! These films are not just about AIDS, they are also events in the history of AIDS. They are historical arguments as well as historical artifacts. The history of AIDS on film, moreover, intersects at many points with the history of AIDS as politics. Take, for instance, a film like Greyson’s Zero Patience, which is not just about the ACT-UP moment, but is also actually part of that moment. So these are some of the areas upon which the discussion will settle, I hope. I am, however, leaving it up to the panelists. I want it to be an informal and open-ended affair, one in which the audience can also participate.





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