In John Greyson’s 2021 short film International Dawn Chorus Day, birds from six of the world’s continents flock to an online video call in 2020. Chirping and singing, they discuss cats and the weather, but also share speculations about Shady Habash, an Egyptian filmmaker imprisoned over a music video mocking President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Habash had just died of unknown causes in a jail outside Cairo after two years in detention without trial.
“That news that Shady died was a real kick in the gut,” says Greyson, speaking to The Globe and Mail on a Zoom call himself.
The death of the satiric filmmaker caused outrage among fellow young artists and activists who were trying to peacefully protest the authoritarian Egyptian regime. It also led to Greyson making the film that stars the conversative warblers.
“It is a ridiculous concept,” says the Toronto director and political activist. “Why would birds know about Shady? Why would they care? But that’s the point – they should care, and we should care.”
Greyson’s International Dawn Chorus Day is named after the worldwide celebration of birdsong that takes place each year in May. It will be screened on Oct. 29 at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in advance of a panel discussion on freedom of expression. Taking part are former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson, writer John Ralston Saul and filmmakers Leena Manimekalai and Greyson. Lawyer and human rights activist Kaveh Shahrooz moderates.
Ten years ago this month Greyson and Canadian doctor and humanitarian Tarek Loubani were released from Tora Prison – the same facility where Habash died. They had been imprisoned six weeks without charge.
Greyson was in the region to make a film about Loubani, who had designed a 3-D printed stethoscope using recycled plastic that could be made in the blockaded Gaza Strip. The pair’s detention was a major news event. Their eventual release from prison and departure from Egypt was facilitated by the tireless work of Canadian officials.
“It was an amazing effort to get us out,” Greyson says. “The film obviously did not get made.”
The Ageless: Freedom of Expression panel discussion is presented by the Ageless International Film Festival (Nov. 1 to 7, and Nov. 12), an annual event dedicated to seniors’ stories and older filmmakers.
The films of the 63-year-old Greyson frequently concern queer characters and themes. International Dawn Chorus Day also focuses on the tragedy of queer activist Sarah Hegazi, incarcerated and tortured for flying a rainbow flag at a Cairo concert in 2017.
With the help of Rainbow Railroad, a global not-for-profit organization based in the United States and Canada that helps at-risk LGTBQI+ people get to safety worldwide, Hegazi then immigrated to Toronto as a political refugee.
Sadly, suffering from depression as a result of her traumatic experience in prison, the 30-year-old Hegazi died by suicide in her Toronto apartment in 2020.
“While we were editing International Dawn Chorus Day, Sarah took her own life,” Greyson says. “This was heartbreaking, because she seemed to be thriving in Toronto. Then, of course, we learned that she was not. I decided to make her an equal part of the film with Shady Habash.”
Greyson is currently one of organizers of Viral Interventions, a York University project that each year commissions six short films about HIV realities today. One of the films this year will come from a former drug user who has decided to climb Mount Everest as his public education message about HIV.
“I’m trying to focus on those moments were the film community can break through and reach people and say new things and enable new voices,” Greyson says. “There’s much to fight for still, but we can look at some doors and some windows that have opened.”
Ageless: Freedom of Expression takes place at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, Oct. 29, at 3:30 p.m.