Dir/prod/scr. John Greyson. Canada. 2009. 104mins.
In John Greyson’s playful Fig Trees, a polemic for the fair treatment of AIDS patients worldwide is folded into a reconfiguration of the 1934 opera Four Saints In Three Acts by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson. It is imaginative and ambitious and often fun.
Made without commercial funds and without much hope of a commercial audience, Fig Trees will still find a small dedicated public wherever AIDS is found, as long as political conditions permit it to be shown. Festivals and museums worldwide are the natural venues for this, and opera fans may be won over although the traditional film arthouse is not really a market. As long as there are controversies over AIDS and the treatment of people who suffer from it, this film is likely to be part of the debate.
Greyson follows two patient/activists with AIDS - Tim McCaskell, the eloquent advocate for AIDS treatment in Toronto, and Zackie Achmat of South Africa, who refused his drug treatment in 1999 in protest over the number of people there who died with no access to drugs.
Both men’s cases become part of a restaging of Four Saints In Three Acts that Greyson tailors into a pointed critique of the way politicians and society address AIDS. Shifting between homage and irreverence, narrators include squirrels, singers playing Thomson and Stein, and a cast of additional ‘saints’ who update the opera to focus on the disease with music by David Wall.
The effect, with hints of Tony Kushner’s dramatic eclecticism, is anything but academic. Greyson ridicules George W Bush for the US’s slowness to fight the epidemic (but better than nothing, he concedes). The ‘Dollar Bills’ (Bill Clinton and Bill Gates) are mocked, along with Bono, for grandstanding the issue.
Nor is the film all opera. Well-meaning pop songs are made over with lyrics in the service of AIDS activism and staged in pink-tinted music videos.
There’s a lightness to Greyson’s musical touch and to the pageantry of the original opera that his film outs as a work of veiled but deeply deliberate homoeroticism. Yet there’s no softness to his political critique; no bland balance of opinions in Greyson’s documentary approach. The director knows what he is attacking, and he champions activists on the front line. Without them, the film suggests, the body count in the West would be even more of a tragedy.
Canada Council for the Arts
Ontario Arts Council
(1) 647 272 0386