John Greyson opera Fig Trees tackles AIDS activism

Canadian filmmaker and activist John Greyson looks at attitudes towards AIDS today and sees complacency, which led him to create Fig Trees, his "video opera" screening Thursday in Toronto.

John Greyson says opera is an "inappropriate medium" for the subject matter of Fig Trees — his new video opera.

It defies conventions of genre, politics and even Mother Nature — the film is narrated by a singing squirrel — in a way that clashes with its serious subject matter, AIDS.

Greyson's experimental work Fig Trees challenges both convention and what the Canadian filmmaker and activist sees as an epidemic of complacency.

"[We] see complacency," he told CBC's Q cultural affairs shows. "[We] see a smugness in society, thinking that we've dealt with it. We're buying T-shirts to save people in Africa. What we've got to do is see through that complacency."

The video opera screens Thursday in Toronto.

"Of all the 20th century subjects, AIDS seems most suited to the operatic form, in terms of melodrama, in terms of tragedy. Why has there not been an AIDS opera yet?" Greyson mused.

Greyson, a film professor at York University in Toronto, is an acclaimed director of eccentric, often gay-themed works with socially charged messages.

Fond of defying convention, Greyson admitted an AIDS story in the form of an opera is a strange creature, as is the film's narrator — a singing albino squirrel.

Despite its eccentricities, Fig Trees tackles themes of social justice, consumer complacency, government inaction and martyrdom.

Fig Trees is a portrait of two real-life prominent activists, Zackie Achmat (founder of the Treatment Action Campaign), from South Africa, and Tim McCaskell (a founder of AIDS Action Now!), from Toronto.

Parallel narratives track Achmat and McCaskell through interview footage, interspersed with diverse musical numbers and opera.

The film takes a global perspective because that's what AIDS activism needs, Greyson said.

"One of the most important things about AIDS activism right now is the global character. It's really simple: it's because of the drug companies. If the drug companies are multinational, then our activism has to be multinational in the same way," he said.

Achmat challenges drug companies during a treatment strike chronicled in the film. The South African activist refused to be medicated for a positive HIV diagnosis shortly after founding TAC.  

"[Achmat] realized that it would be impossible to lead a movement when he had the privilege to take drugs and nobody else could, so he decided to not take his pills until they were available for all South Africans," Greyson explained.

At first, Greyson recalled, nobody noticed. Then Achmat's story made local, national, and eventually international news.

The idea for an opera sprung up in jest, as Greyson teased Achmat that someone was going to make an opera about him after news of Achmat's strike appeared in the New York Times.

Opera is well suited for the subject because of its theatrical tragedy, Greyson said.

"We're hooked on other people's pain," Greyson said, "especially the stories of isolated individuals."

Greyson's 1993 musical Zero Patience, one of his better-known works, challenges the orthodoxy of AIDS as a "gay disease." Greyson said he used the "fluffy, discredited musical" intentionally in another foray into an inappropriate medium.

Fig Trees was largely inspired by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thompson's 1934 opera Four Saints in Three Acts.

Stein's modernist production, which cast Harlem singers as saints, became a "cause célèbre for the avant-garde movement," Greyson said.

When he created Fig Trees, Greyson wanted to make opera socially conscious again, as Stein had.

"We were definitely taking on opera as this conservative, elitist monolith, but on the other hand, trying to tease out a tendency that's sometimes forgotten, a tendency of resistance, a tendency of social activism buried within those sir titles and grand divas parking and barking on centre stage," he said.

Fig Trees premiered at the Berlin Film Festival this spring, where it won the Teddy Award for best queer documentary. It screens Thursday at the Isabel Bader Theatre as part of Toronto's Inside Out Film Festival.