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John Greyson retrospective celebrates a maverick

Filmmaker and activist John Greyson in Toronto April 23, 2009.

tim fraser The Globe and Mail

Toronto filmmaker John Greyson is being feted this week with a retrospective, a DVD compilation and a new book about his feature musical Zero Patience. That all this will be hosted by the TIFF Bell Lightbox shows what good sports the festival's programmers are. After all, it was just in 2009 that Greyson yanked his film from TIFF to protest an Israeli-sponsored film series – effectively setting off an international debate about sponsors' impact on programming, and supplying the festival with an unwelcome controversy.

But it's precisely that scrappy, activist approach to filmmaking that makes Greyson worthy of celebration. The director behind such features as Urinal, Lilies and Uncut, as well as recent agit-prop music videos drawing attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has left an indelible impact on both international queer cinema and Canada's film culture.

Greyson's heady mash-up of postmodern theory, grassroots politics and street activism was perhaps best summed up by film scholar and author Thomas Waugh, who once described the filmmaker's style as "a convergence of techno-wizardry, dense allusiveness, camp anachronism, unabashed didacticism, melo narrative, heady eroticism and media collage."

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For those of us who came of age while watching Greyson's career progress, a strange sense of nostalgia accompanies this retrospective. Many of his films and videos were a response to the gruelling, unforgiving AIDS crisis which, when at its worst, did feel akin to a Holocaust in the gay community. A stand-out in the retrospective is Zero Patience, Greyson's take-no-prisoners diatribe about the unthinking, unfeeling response of the media, governments and the scientific establishment to the AIDS epidemic.

A musical comedy about the epidemic and its fallout, Zero Patience represented New Queer Cinema, a cinematic movement roughly held together by fury over indifference to the AIDS epidemic and the desire to present less squeaky-clean images of gay characters, and Canada's film-funding policies.

Greyson's budget of $1.2-million would not have paid for pizza on most Hollywood movie sets, but it seemed substantial in Canada in the 1990s. And Greyson used the money for a tribute to the hard work of ACT UP-style activists as well as to bigger ideas. Zero Patience goes out of its way, for example, to remind us that we're actually watching a movie – eschewing the pitfalls of melodrama, which was then the genre of choice for representing AIDS. The film received polarized responses from critics upon its release – people either loved it or hated it – but you had to hand it to Greyson: Almost everything in this film was about taking risks. I sincerely doubt anyone could make a film like it today.

Zero Patience also speaks of an exciting time for Canadian filmmakers. The early 1990s were marked by the new industry buzz around Miramax Films and the Sundance Film Festival; suddenly, independent low-budget films with big ideas (in other words, the kind of films Canadians were brilliant at) could find coveted distribution deals and reach much larger international audiences. Films such as Zero Patience, Laurie Lynd's RSVP, Lynne Fernie's and Aerlyn Weissman's Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives, and Patricia Rozema's I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, were gaining huge international attention, effectively raising the profile of Canadian filmmakers – as well as their hopes and aspirations.

This notoriety struck Zero Patience, which toured the burgeoning alternative and queer film-festival circuit. Always present in the film was an anger that resonated around the world; Greyson was especially furious with the mainstream media for its callous and often vapid reportage on AIDS. And while he was angry with conservative forces, he singled out the liberal journalists – some of them gay – for special venom. Openly-gay journalist Randy Shilts had penned the book And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, which had eviscerated the Reagan Administration for its passive indifference to the onslaught of AIDS. But Greyson took issue with what he called the book's "sexy subplot" about Gaetan Dugas, a Quebecois flight attendant who Shilts' dubbed "Patient Zero," purporting this promiscuous gay man was a modern-day Typhoid Mary who had brought HIV to the western world's gay milieu.

What was wondrous about Greyson's approach to Zero Patience was the way he conveyed so much anger with such a sly sense of humour. This was years before the game-changing, protease-inhibitor drug cocktails would debut, effectively making AIDS a far more treatable disease. It's a painful time to remember. Almost as horrific as the disease itself was the response of much of the public, who seemed to be apathetic and silent or quietly pleased at what appeared to be no-fault genocide.

Looking back at Zero Patience provokes a stark, strange combination of emotions: elation that AIDS isn't the death sentence that it used to be, and wistful sadness that it's highly unlikely a film as gutsy and flat-out weird as Zero Patience could even get made today – let alone find a distributor. The days of big-screen risk-taking as flamboyant, flagrant, uncompromising and incendiary as this, it seems, are long gone.

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John Greyson: Impatient runs from March 30 to April 5 at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox, kicking off with a book launch and screening of Zero Patience at 6 p.m. on March 30 (complete listings at

Matthew Hays is a co-editor of the Queer Film Classics book series, which includes the new book Zero Patience, launching as part of the Greyson retrospective.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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