An interview with John Greyson

By Kaizaad Kotwal

Kaizaad Kotwal is a professor at The Ohio State University's Theatre Department. Originally from India, the author has his B.A. in Theatre, Art, and Economics and an M.A. in Theatre. His dissertation research concerned Virtual Reality and Cyber-Technologies for Theatre and Cinema. He is also an actor, director, producer, writer and designer with over 150 credits to his name.



Canadian filmmaker John Greyson was in Columbus, Ohio, recently to present a world premiere of his latest work. On April 25, 2003 he brought his most recent film, "a work still in progress" according to him, to the Wexner Center on the campus of The Ohio State University. The film titled Proteus, is a film made in collaboration with colleague and fellow-filmmaker Jack Lewis.

Greyson, who was born in British Columbia, was raised mostly in London, Ontario. Today he calls Toronto home after having had brief stays in New York and Los Angeles during his adult life. Greyson's previous works, which put him on the filmmaker's road map include the AIDS-related musical Zero Patience and the haunting examination of religion and sexuality titled Lilies. Having honed his skills in the 1980s in the video arts, Greyson has naturally transitioned to film and digital media over the last decade or so.

His early works in video art were what he calls "experimental narratives mostly dealing with gay issues." He said that with his early works his mission was to "try to expand the gay agenda," to talk about issues that were not being talked about in the 1980s and that are still not extensively dealt with even today. In particular, Greyson was drawn to AIDS and HIV-related issues as well as police entrapment of gay men.

In our telephone conversation, from his home in Toronto, Greyson talked extensively and passionately about his early introduction into the world of AIDS activism.

At 46 today, Greyson acknowledges that he "became politicized fairly early during the late 1970s." "I was involved in a lot of peace movement stuff," he said, "including some solidarity stuff with Nicaragua." "It was such an energizing and mobilizing time," he added.

It was during this time that Greyson had just moved to Toronto and found himself getting sucked right into that politicized energy and activist hubbub. Upon his move to Toronto he found that "there was such an attack on the gay community," in particular with reference to the regular raiding of bathhouses by the law enforcement establishment.

Today, approximately twenty-five years later, Greyson finds himself back in Toronto and today things are "thankfully much different." "We are much more main stream for one thing," he said, "because we have a public voice and we are not such an easy target." I asked Greyson whether he believed that his early films on AIDS and police entrapment contributed to the change evidenced today. He demurs from taking such credit but added that, "I think that my films probably contributed to the dialogue around these and other issues."

Proteus is Greyson's first directorial collaboration with another filmmaker, South African Jack Lewis. While all the filming has been completed, the film is still in the final stages of editing. The shoot for Proteus lasted 18 days and was shot entirely in Capetown on Pal-D Beta. "This was a small budget film," Greyson said, "and was funded by both Canadian and South African agencies."

The story of Proteus is based on real-life events, found in historical documentation in the Capetown archives. This film is a recreation of the decade-long love affair in the 18th century in a Cape Town penal colony on Robin Island. The two lovers were a Dutch sailor imprisoned there for sodomy and a young Khoi herder. The Khoi were part of the Hottentot tribal group and as such were the untouchables of that time. The two were placed on trial and this love affair and the legal battles are the grist of Greyson and Lewis' film based partly on court transcripts from the time.

In South Africa, during the 1700s, sodomy was a crime deemed worse than murder, and the fact that these two young men had indulged in it was also complicated by the fact that this was an interracial love affair. Greyson explained that in those days "there were considered to be four main races, the Europeans, the Africans, the Indians, and the Americans." "The Hottentot were not even considered to be human," he added, to explain how serious this "crime" was considered back then, largely due to the racism associated with one of the "criminals."

While this is not an overtly activist film, Greyson believes that it is "consistent with" his "earlier works." He explained that he "has always been interested in history and how history has defined and redefined sexuality." He has always been, as he put it, interested in "how marginalized people cope, particularly in the absence of resources."

Even though this is the first time that Greyson has co-directed a film with someone else, according to him he has "had an amazing ride with it." "It is the coolest thing I have ever done," he added. Greyson used his background from the arts scene and his experience with narrative structures and meshed it with Lewis' forte in documentary filmmaking. Greyson said that during the project he was "both aesthetically and culturally challenged."

The title Proteus refers to the Shepard of the Poseidon fields in ancient Greek mythology. The film sets up the device of a Scottish botanist who is in the region in 1735 collecting plants and is trying to name a flower family. He meets the two prisoners and their story gradually unfolds.

One of the things that Greyson hopes the film will depict to its audiences is the idea as to "how difficult it truly is to know history, particularly self-history." This is always compounded by the fact that history is always written by the winners and rarely, if ever, have the marginalized had a chance to project their voices into the pantheons of historical narratives.

Shot in English and Afrikaans, Proteus will start the festival circuit in June hen editing will be completed. Eventually Greyson hopes that "Proteus" will find a distributor both nationally and internationally. While he is finishing up this film, he is already busy working away at his next project, "a new, fictive opera about AIDS in South Africa." Here Greyson will return to his roots in video art, compiling an experience that is a series of video installations, making the audience move form room to room. Composer Dave Wall is collaborating with Greyson on this venture.

Greyson's interest in the area of AIDS in South Africa came partly from his contact with Jack Lewis' roommate, Zackie Achmat, an activist with the Treatment Action Coalition. Achmat actually sued the pharmaceutical companies, who have refused to work to provide HIV- and AIDS-related drugs at affordable rates in countries where these treatments are simply unaffordable.

In fact, the day I was interviewing Greyson, he was anxiously anticipating the outcome of some new rounds of civil disobedience that Achmat was organizing in that AIDS-ravaged region of the world.

I asked Greyson, whether all the news and statistics about AIDS emerging from Africa, totally depressed him. "Actually," he answered, "I think it is still hopeful because we are on the cusp of being able to do so much as long as there is the political will to fight the pharmaceutical giants." "It is truly so easy," he continued, "because we have reached a stage where it would only cost eighty cents a day to treat the afflicted in that region if the pharmaceutical companies would give up there patents to allow for cheaper generics to be produced."

Greyson's activist self becomes keenly evident as he refers to the drug corporations "indulging in criminal behavior where they would rather pursue wealth and patents over saving a continent." Greyson is "optimistic that people can be mobilized." "The world is notoriously slow many a time," he said, "and so many people have to die before the world eventually gets it right."

Of course, the situation was not helped any when South African President Thabo Mbeki stated a few years ago that he didn't believe that HIV actually caused AIDS. "This man is a lunatic," Greyson said. "Mbeki is a Rhodes scholar, and granted that he is conservative," but "many of us are still trying to figure out what motivated him to spread such a ludicrous notion."

Moving to activism closer to home, Greyson joked that he had "been at the U.S. Consulate an awful lot lately," in Toronto. "It's really great to see such a large anti-war movement," he said. He referred to the 250,000 people who had marched in Montreal in March and seemed grateful for the resurgence of such a global outcry against the war in Iraq.

Greyson refers to the current Bush regime as "the depths of evil." "I remember being in the states during part of Reagan's administration" he continued, "and many of my friends and I used to think that that was the depths of evil." "But this is a bigger depth of evil," he concluded.

And then emitting a sardonic laugh, Greyson added that "this is such a level of lunacy that evil is not a very useful word." I asked him what word might be more useful. After a lengthy pause, Greyson laughed again and said, "I am speechless. Completely speechless." Whether with the Reagan administration or with this Bush's rule, Greyson identifies that depth of evil because of "their hypocrisy at the cost of real, human lives."

"The current Bush regime is an incredible indictment of the increasing rift between people and power," he said. Greyson believes that at least during the Reagan years and during Bush Senior's rule "there was some pretense that the government was for the masses." "Not so with the younger Bush," he concluded.

It is little wonder then that after his brief stints dwelling n New York and L.A., Greyson found himself gravitating back towards Canada. It's not simply the political milieu there that he prefers, but also the "great public support for the arts that exists in Canada," as opposed to the United States where both public and private funding have been consistently eroding away over the last decade or so.

"Canada is a great place to make art," Greyson said, "and a healthy one because it allows many voices to be heard." "That's the reason I'm here," he added.

Greyson has been living together with Stephen Andrews, his boyfriend of 6 years. Andrews is a fellow artist whose medium is contemporary photo-based conceptual art. They live in a working class Portuguese neighborhood in Toronto and have known each other for the last 25 years.


                                                                 © FILM JOURNAL 2002