The closing plenary of day 2 at reconference featured a conversation between prolific film and video artist, educator and activist John Greyson from Canada, and Indian filmmaker Shohini Ghosh. Greyson has made over 60 films and videos, teaches full-time at York University, and is completing a PhD. In the book Perils of Pedagogy, a number of noted writers and filmmakers engage with Greyson’s body of work. As Ghosh mentioned, this is a very rare thing to happen to a filmmaker who is contemporary and still producing work, and speaks to the volume, quality and impact of Greyson’s oeuvre.
Here are the major takeaways from the closing plenary of Day 2 at #recon2019:
- Greyson grew up in London, Ontario, a small Canadian city that he was eager to leave in 1978. He moved to Toronto that year, to become an artist and come out as queer. “I joined an extraordinarily inspiring video art scene in Toronto,” he said. This was the same time that the AIDS epidemic was hitting hard, and Greyson got heavily involved in activism – a concern that is reflected in several significant films he’s made on the subject, including the feature film Fig Trees (2009) that is being screened at #recon2019 as part of the John Greyson retrospective.
- Greyson is constantly in conversation with other works of art in his films. The ADS Epidemic is a remake of Visconti’s Death in Venice. Lilies, a feature film he made in 1996, is based on a play Michel-Marc Bouchard. He evokes Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour in a 1 minute short film – a prison sex fantasy that promotes safer sex.
- Prisons – and prison justice – often feature in Greyson’s work. In Toronto, after the police raided gay bath houses in 1981, 2,000 people rioted against the police. As Greyson said, this was a “coming of age of a community that had been under the thumb of the police.” This was also when the LGBT rights community found common cause with the women’s movement and the black community. Seeing friends being jailed for being in bathhouses, and ending up in court repeatedly was a big part of Greyson’s experience. “This neoliberal, Trudeau-infused world pretends that we have achieved freedom,” he said.. “But [in truth] we are still fighting for freedom and rights.”
- Greyson ended up being imprisoned in Egypt for 50 days in 2013, exactly ten years after he had made Proteus, about a love affair between two men at an 18th century South African prison. He and his friend Tarek Loubani were arrested in Cairo after attending anti-government protests. After his release and return to Canada, Greyson made Prison Arabic in 50 Days, featuring flashcards he made with drawings from his time in Tora prison, and the Arabic words he was trying to learn from them.
- Greyson is heavily involved in the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, using YouTube and Vimeo sharing to reach out to a transnational audience. He uses humor and music to educate the world about human rights violations in Gaza against Palestinians, by parodying pop songs of singers who are about to go to Israel to perform. The goal is to get the targeted artist to cancel – and although this has never happened, according to Greyson it still allows engagement with fans, and makes them aware of the relationship between pop culture and social responsibility.