John Greyson, director, writer, producer, activist (born 13 March 1960 in Nelson, BC). John Greyson is a prolific award-winning film- and video-maker who has achieved international recognition on the queer cinema and film festival circuits.
John Greyson, director, writer, producer, activist (born 13 March 1960 in Nelson, BC). John Greyson is a prolific award-winning film- and video-maker who has achieved international recognition on the queer cinema and film festival circuits. His audacious films and videos experiment with form and genre, engage with explicitly gay subject matter, and provoke conversations about queer issues. Also a committed activist, Greyson received international attention in 2013 when he was detained without charge in Egypt for fifty days before being released. He is perhaps best known for the films Zero Patience (1993) and Lilies (1996), which won four Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture.
Greyson attended H.B. Beale High School in London, Ontario, where he was first introduced to avant-garde video. He nurtured this interest in video art in the early 1980s after joining Toronto’s Charles St. Video, an artists’ collective. The activist element of his work was influenced by spending two years in New York City working with the AIDS activist group, ACT UP. This early interest in avant-garde aesthetics and activism informs much of Greyson’s work.
Among Greyson’s many videos are Kipling Meets the Cowboys (1985), Moscow Does Not Believe in Queers (1986), The AIDS Epidemic (1987), The World is Sick (sic) (1989), and The Making of Monsters (1991). His first full-length film, Urinal (1988, originally titled Pissoir), features a quintet of historical figures — Frida Kahlo, Sergei Eisenstein, Frances Loring, Florence Wyle and Yukio Mishima — who are resurrected to investigate networks of gay sex in public bathrooms and to expose the rampant police abuse that goes with it.
His next feature, the provocative, audacious and scathingly political Zero Patience (1993), confronts misperceptions about AIDS using the fact-based character "Patient Zero," a Québécois flight attendant blamed for bringing HIV to North America. The film explores corporate AIDS-drug profiteering and the cultural politics of blame (for carrying the AIDS virus) amidst musical numbers featuring singing anuses, bathhouse shower ensembles and the historical explorer, Sir Richard Burton, as an anachronistic guide. The film stands as a landmark in queer cinema. Writing in 2012, the Globe and Mail’s Matthew Hays remarked, “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 is, it seems, are long gone.”
Greyson’s third feature, Lilies (1996), is his widest success. Based on Michel-Marc Bouchard's play of the same name, Lilies is Greyson's first adaptation of a work written for theatre. The central narrative, which shifts between prison narrative and historical drama, presents a play within a film and features multiple layers of storytelling and perspectives. The film evokes the work of French writer Jean Genet in its elegiac homoeroticism, and has a visual beauty that deepens the sense of loss, hope and anger that animate all of Greyson's work. Lilies won the 1996 Genie Award for Best Motion Picture, beating out David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) and Bruce Macdonald’s Hard Core Logo (1996), and earned Greyson a nomination for Best Direction.
Greyson’s next feature, The Law of Enclosures (2000), remains his largest production. Made on a budget of $2.2 million CAD, the film’s cast includes Canadian and international stars such as Sarah Polley (who dropped out of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous to make the film) and Diane Ladd. The Law of Enclosures received mixed reviews, with Variety calling it “easy to admire but harder to embrace.” It earned three Genie Award nominations and a win for Brendan Fletcher for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
In 2003, John Greyson and composer David Wall presented the video Fig Trees, which was released in 2009 as a feature-length documentary opera narrated by an albino squirrel and including music and words of Gertrude Stein’s 1934 avant-garde classic opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, performed upside and backward by Fig Tree’s eclectic cast. Greyson’s other features include Uncut (1997) and Proteus (2003). In addition to Greyson’s work in film and video, his directing credits include episodes of the TV series Queer as Folk (2001–02), The Industry (2001–03), and Paradise Falls (2004).
Aesthetics and Activism
Queer cinema scholar Thomas Waugh has described Greyson’s style as “a convergence of techno wizardry, dense allusiveness, camp anachronism, unabashed didacticism, melodramatic narrative, heady eroticism and media collage.” Greyson's subjects — informed by his commitment to gay rights, AIDS activism and other political issues — are presented through film in inventive and playful ways. His use of video serves both the activist and artistic agendas of his work. Video activism treats the camera as a collaborator in political action and its post-production flexibility allows the videomaker — more easily than the filmmaker — to layer images and sounds while incorporating pre-existing footage. His reliance on forms such as music video, flashback-driven narrative and docudrama creates films that treat political and theoretical subjects without sacrificing their appeal as entertainment.
Greyson generally resists categorization, especially under the umbrella of national cinema. “I’ve never really bought into the notion of national cinema perse,” he remarked in a 2005 interview. “I think it is useful in terms of teaching and festivals and it organizes the world, but is it useful? Does it feed me aesthetically, politically, intellectually? Not at all. ” His work emphasizes alternatives to sanitized images of Canadian and queer cultures alike.
Underlying Greyson's work is his belief that conventional documentary techniques cannot adequately convey political issues. His approach instead explores the fantastical alternatives to factual events to counter previous representations of history. Greyson's works, whatever their format or budget, are colourful, humorous, sexy and campy. Some launch into song, drawing on the musical, a popular genre adored by many gay audiences. In other films, his characters take on roles-within-roles; famous figures from the past are often cheekily resuscitated and assigned unlikely characteristics. This playful element collides with the formal character of Greyson’s work to create a distancing effect that asks the viewer to engage with the constructed and deconstructed images of queer culture. However, these tendencies can also alienate some viewers and critics; a common criticism of Greyson’s films is that they pretentious or inaccessible.
Teddy Award, Best Feature Film (Pissoir,a.k.a. Urinal), Berlin International Film Festival (1989)
Best Canadian Short Film (The Making of Monsters), Toronto International Film Festival (1991)
Teddy Award, Best Short Film (The Making of Monsters), Berlin International Film Festival (1991)
Best Short Film (The Making of Monsters), Chicago International Film Festival (1991)
Special Jury Citation – Best Canadian Feature Film (Zero Patience), Toronto International Film Festival (1993)
Best Canadian Film (Zero Patience) Sudbury Cinéfest (1993)
Best Ontario Film (Zero Patience), Sudbury Cinéfest (1993)
Best Motion Picture (Lilies), Genie Awards (1996)
Best Canadian Film (Lilies) Montréal World Film Festival (1996)
Audience Award (Lilies), San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (1997)
Audience Favourite (Lilies), Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival (1997)
Grand Jury Award (Lilies), LA Outfest (1997)
Best Director (Made in Canada), Gemini Awards (2002)
Bell Canada Award in Video Art (2007)
Teddy Award – Best Documentary (Fig Trees),Berlin International Film Festival (2009)
Best Canadian Film or Video (Fig Trees), Toronto Inside Out Film Festival (2009)
Jury Prize (Fig Trees), Hamburg Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (2009)
Susan Knabe and Wendy Gay Pearson, Zero Patience (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009).
George Melnyk, ed., Great Canadian Film Directors (University of Alberta Press, 2007).