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Sex, Song and Segregation

by Valerie Cardinal February 26, 2011
Sex, Song and Segregation

St. Teresa of Avila (Denise Williams) and St. Martin (Ezra Perlman) sing about the divine proportions of musical composition. Photo: Ali Kazimi

John Greyson has seen a lot of conflict over the past 25 years, and he hasn’t been afraid to comment on it. The Canadian video and filmmaker will be coming to Concordia as part of a collaboration between Queer Concordia and Cinema Politica to show some of his films and talk about the issues discussed in them. Although Greyson’s films touch every subject from AIDS medication to South African apartheid, he stated that the short films and excerpts to be shown have a clear link. “The thematic that runs through it is sort of contrasting two types of apartheid, South Africa 20 years ago and then Israel today and the activism and the boycott movement connected to both.”

Greyson started making political videos when he moved to Toronto in the late 70s and became active in its gay community. “The gay movement of the time was very focused on social justice issues,” he said.

“It seems to me that we as citizens all have a responsibility to speak up and take a stand around social justice issues, and some people can do that by joining a march, some people can do that by making a speech, and I’ve got this privilege of being able to work in film video,” he explained. “It seems like that’s a way of contributing to a dialogue.”

Four South African AIDS activists sing the scores that are tattooed on their throats: Simon Nkoli (Alexander Chapman), Christopher Moraka (Justin Bacchus), Nkosi Johnson (Ashton Williams), Gugu Dlamini (Denise Williams)

The activist and filmmaker became involved in the Israeli-Palestinian debate when he started feeling that Israel was hiding behind its encouragement of gay rights. “Human rights aren’t divisible. You can’t say ‘we’re good on gays but bad on Palestinians,’ or ‘good on homophobia but bad on racism.’ You can’t divide it up like that.”

Many of Greyson’s recent films, such as Vuvuzela, are a call to musicians to boycott Israel by cancelling their concerts. “I’m a firm believer that boycott is the right thing to do,” he stated, explaining that many artists are put off by boycott because of censorship issues. “There’s that crucial education and dialogue part of this initiative which is trying to make people realize boycott isn’t about censorship, boycott’s about trying to, as consumers, as citizens, take a stand and say enough is enough.”

As to the impact Greyson’s films are having, “I like to think [musicians have] all seen the videos and that they’ve completely changed their minds as a result,” he said jokingly. But while reaching the artists is one of Greyson’s goals, it’s not the whole picture. His videos are “also trying to educate the fans, trying to use music and humour and the cheekiness of rewriting the lyrics.” His latest short film is a parody of Justin Bieber’s “Baby.”

Greyson sees film as not only crucial to building up awareness, but also as a way to create community. “No matter what film we see, the latest Coen brothers, whatever, we come out of the theatre, we talk to each other about it,” he shared. “Through film, we find out who each other are.”

Simon Nkoli (Alexander Chapman) has a musical staff tattooed onto his neck by St. Martin (Ezra Perlman).

The use of documentary and fiction are a feature of some of Greyson’s films. For example, Fig Trees is based on South African AIDS activist Zackie Ahmat’s struggles, but Ahmat’s story is told both in documentary form and as an opera. Greyson hopes that by using elements like music and humour, he can get the audience to consider his point of view. “I think film can reach people in ways that a lecture can’t, in ways that an essay can’t, or a magazine article,” he said. “If through music, through humour, we can keep people in the room and we can keep people talking to each other, keep people listening to me and me listening to them, I think we’re making progress.”

Sex, Song and Segregation: Spotlight on Canadian activist and filmmaker John Greyson is on Feb 28 at 7pm. For more info, check out cinemapolitica.org.

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