John Greyson

2009, Canada, video, color & B&W, sound, 104 min.

In 1999, South African AIDS activist Zackie Achmat went on a treatment strike, refusing to take his pills until they were widely available to all South Africans. This symbolic act became a cause célébre, helping build his group, Treatment Action Campaign, into a national movement. Yet with each passing month, Zackie grew sicker...

Fig Trees is a documentary opera about AIDS activists Tim McCaskell in Toronto and Zackie Achmat in Capetown, as narrated by an albino squirrel, an amputee busker and St. Teresa of Avila. Telling the story of Zackie’s treatment strike in song, and the larger story of the fight for pills on two continents and across two decades, Fig Trees performs musical and political inversion on the music and words of Gertrude Stein’s 1934 avant-garde classic Four Saints in Three Acts. Using compositional techniques of chance, inversion, and polyphony, Fig Trees finds points of political harmony and musical convergence in operatic and documentary sequences that profile the overlapping stories of various activists: Tim McCaskell, Gugu Dlamini, Stephen Lewis, Simon Nkoli…and Zackie himself.

November 19, 2009
8 PM

Plus: John Greyson in Person

An operatic documentary about the struggle of two AIDS activists – Canadian Tim McCaskell and South African Zackie Achmat. Both have fought tooth-and-nail for the provision of anti-retroviral drugs to treat AIDS. In John Greyson’s film they are ably supported by Gertrude Stein, a singing albino squirrel, and St. Teresa of Ávila. Fig Trees is nonetheless based on true stories. Tim McCaskell has spent more than twenty years fighting AIDS and addressing the concerns of gay men. In Johannesburg in 1999, Zackie Achmat, who is himself HIV-positive, began refusing to take his medication; he said he would only continue his treatment if it were made freely available to all South Africans suffering from AIDS. His symbolic act caused a stir in the international arena. His private Treatment Action Campaign soon became a nationwide movement. Meanwhile, his own state of health continued to deteriorate…

John Greyson has edited documentary interviews, speeches made by both men, archive footage of press conferences and demonstrations, and, with the addition of music, has turned his film into an operatic scenario. The work combines the authentic struggle of two AIDS activists against the authorities and the pharmaceutical industry with a surrealistic narrative, at the centre of which is Gertrude Stein, who wants to write a tragic opera about Achmat and McCaskell and their saint-like heroics. To this end, she abducts the two men to Niagara Falls where she forces them to belt out complicated avant-garde arias. These arias are also authentic – having originated from Gertrude Stein’s ambitious opera, Four Saints in Three Acts.

2009 Teddy award winner!

Teddy Jury Statement: With his familiar cheeky style, Greyson’s operatic tour de force smashes conventional barriers of form and genre to reinvent the documentary. Integrating personal histories with an indictment of governments and pharmaceutical companies, Fig Trees colorfully expands the conversation about AIDS and AIDS activism from local struggles to global collaboration.