John Greyson  

"Zero Patience": Interview with John Greyson
Video and film artist John Greyson
Published April 1994

C.M-S: Could you introduce yourself please?
JG: Sure. I'm a video and film artist. I'm 33, Since the early 80's I've been doing video, performance and artist ???, but was never happy with them so moved exclusively into video. Mostly for distribution reasons started to make a move into film. So here we are and I've made a film.

C.M-S: How did you discover you were gay?
JG: I have memories which go back to the age of five. They go from wanting to be a girl, or thinking I was a girl, - gender confusion to a very clear desire for boys- wanting to kiss boys, and knowing that it wasn't considered good. I never had any doubts. A lot of repression and Angst, and being upset about it, but never any doubts. I did have relationships with girls when I was a teenager, but I knew what I wanted. I was able to start coming out when I was seventeen. I was fully actively gay when I was 18 - and working for "Body Politic".

C.M-S. It's good that someone who is a personality says that he knew about the age of five that he was interested in men/males. In Germany they have raised the age of consent from 14 to 16.

But to your film, - in some of the reviews of "Zero Patience" you're described as a gay activist. What do you think about this?

JG: I'm honoured!. I don't know how accurate that is because I'vc been involved in the movement since the late '70s in Toronto. I wrote some stuff for Body Politic - which is a famous gay/lesbian liberation magazine in Toronto, worked with the International Gay Association before it was the international gay and lesbian association. I still work with AIDS-Action-Now in Toronto. Although gay activism and being involved in gay politics has been a big part of my life, in the last five years I've concentrated - by necessity - on doing my art and considering that the prmary focus of the work - and primary focus of the activism too. I want to return to being more invloved in the community. It's just a juggling act with time. My experience was that getting involved in gay politics and the movement fuelled the work in important ways. The work I've done in video and film wouldn't exist without that grounding in practical politics.

C.M-S: How did you get the idea of doing "Zero Patience"?
JG: It started with the publication of Randy Shilts "And the band played on" which was a best selling book - a history of the epidemic in North America. It is by far the most thorough indictment of government indifference for the first five years of the epidemic. There were two things I thought were pretty lousy about the book: the construction of a dichotomy between "good gays" who were monogamous, couples, stayed at home with their 1.2 cats, - and the "bad", promiscuous, often French Canadian gays, who ran around visiting the bath-houses. It seemed important to comment on that silly construction - because I don't think our sexualities work that way. The lives we lead as people don't divide so easily - certainly our political lives. What he did in the name of objective history was quite subjective, and quite reactionary.

He was also the person who invented the myth of patient zero. He accused this Air Canada flight attendant of bringing AIDS to North America, - and his assertions flew in the face of evidence contained - even within his own book. When you do a careful reading of his book there are two reason why the patient zero could never have been the first. There are cases of AIDS which date back to the '60's and even 50's. When they went back and tested blood samples of people who died mysterious immuno-suppressed deaths - they posthumously concluded they must have been AIDS deaths. That's evidence to suggest that AIDS has been around longer than the "patient zero". Just as importantly, if not more so, the study which Shilts claims proves Patient Zero was the first does nothing of the sort. It proves the opposite because in retrospect by 1987 when Shilts book was published, we knew there was a much longer space between infection and manifesting chronic symptoms. In 1982 when the study was done manifesting chronic symptonms was the only way we knew people were sick - the pneumocystic lesions, and Karposis Sarchoma lesions. It is impossible to think Shilts didn't know that Zero wasn't the first. Why launch such a myth? I'm quite cynical. I think it was to do something sensational which would make the book a best seller - which worked. The publisher has to take a lot of the blame. I'm sure they pushed it in the press releases. That was the story which got picked up in the mass media.

What I was interested in critique-ing in "Zero Patience" was the larger thing. Why did the mainstream media, - all of whom should have known better - pick on this. Anyone who has done their basic homework on AIDS should be able to take apart the story in five minutes. What became to me the more interesting thing to explore was - why we as a society seem to have this need for scape-goats. Why do we need to point the finger and say, "You're responsible! You're the source! You faggot! You junkie! You African! You prostitute!"

A couple of other things happened that year which were probably as important. One was the formation of Act-Up - the AIDS activist movement. What they brought to social activism in general and AIDS politics in particular is a sense of wit and style, and outrage. I'm active still in AIDS-action - which is the local group. I've been closely affiliated since it started - also through doing video-work for the movement. I feel very close ot it. The movement has gone through many changes. We're in a completely different situation now than we were in 1987. Many of the activists have died - or moved on to different work, institutions and organisations. But the spirit of the movement has changed the world. I have no doubt about that.

C.M-S: But you criticise Act-Up in the film.
JG: For very important reasons. Because I'm speaking from within the movement, I wanted to reflect the some of the struggles that the movement was going through - and still goes through. These are struggles that any political movement goes through. The disjunction between private personal crises, doubts, especially doubts, versus the public face. I wanted to catch on the screen some of these painful human dilemas that we've all gone through. The response from fellow activists has been absolutely positive. It's a measure of a movement when you can do self-criticism.

C.M-S: One of the criticique of the film says "you deliberately undermined Hollywood structures"...
JG: That's interesting. Story telling is to me really interesting, and following the techniques of dramatic story-telling - obviously not in a realist mode, but in a phantastical mode. Instead of realism being the only option - which Hollywood always claims - . I think realism is only one option. The sort of techniques which I'm using, are coming out of the debates around post modernism. We wanted to make a film which was both experimental and conventional. Something that wouldn't scare people away. Often the avante guarde is so condescending to audiences. If you don't understand it, it's because you're stupid. As a member of the audience, I often don't understand avant guarde stuff and I think it's because they haven't thought clearly enough about communication - about meeting me half-way, about filling in the reference points. I did make a careful effort to fill in reference points to give people enough to understand who Burton was even if they've never heard of Burton before. A lot of people haven't heard of Patient Zero before, so we tried on a practical level and an aesthetical level, and a political level, to fill in enough so it is all there for the uninitiated. So that someone who comes in, and this isn't their world, feels there's something in it for them, too, because communication is important and brdige building is important. I'm not interested in shock techniques or exclusion techniques, - and I'm also not interested in a sensational spectacle where gays once again are simply something for a voyeuristic public to consume.

C.M-S: So you wanted the audience to include many heteros?
JG: Yeh. - because the experience of the epidemic is that there have been so many people touched by the disease because they've been infected themselves or more commonly, in my experience in Toronto - losing loved-ones to AIDS. I talk about the film coming out of the AIDS-community and that definitely includes people like the 60-year-old straight Swedish woman when I was caring for my friend Michael who I would share shifts with. She was Michael's neigbour. That to me is who the film is about as well. That's very important.

C.M-S: How would you answer people who say the film is perverse and risqué.
JG: Absolutely right - and that's fun, - but to be more serious. Those are big words in terms of their possible interpretations. For me risqué tends to have negative connotations - for example titilating. I don't think the film is titilating. It tries to find new ways to talk about sexuality - about the connections between disease and sexuality in ways that will make people listen and not simply turn off, or roll their eyes, or think, "We know all this."  For instance we attempt to talk about anal sex in a way that is very frank and very direct but also had lots of humour in it. We have spent ten years NOT talking about anal sex, and it amazes me that the greatest likelihood of transmission occurs with this particular sexual act, yet we keep using euphemisms. We talk about gay sex in general when we mean a very specific thing called anal sex.

Perverse - I don't have such a bad response to because I think there is a real perversity in taking such a fluffy empty, discredited genre like the musical and filling it with AIDS activist content. That to me is perverse in a fun way- and a productive way. Perversity is often a strategy for shaking people out of their set ideas or set positions so that to me is really worthwhile.

C.M-S: One interesting criticism referred to "de-constructive wit". As a "specialist" so to speak, could you explain for our non-specialist readers what that is?
JG: I would interpret deconstructive wit as a strategy of humour which also does the work of taking apart existing things. Taking apart how hysterical headlines about Patient Zero are put together. It's actually quite a literal word ...

C.M-S: ... taking things apart to look at them carefully ...
JG: Exactly. I think that's a great term.

C.M-S:  They made in Germany a film called "AIDS Rebel" - on the Duesberg line. How would you answer criticism that in the film you say "It's not proved" that HIV alone causes AIDS.
JG: One of the most appalling things about the epidemic is that discussion is continually being closed down, although this is a vital aspect. "Where does it come from?" The idea that we can answer "Africa" and then close the door (although) it was never proven is appalling. That's why we have the green monkey scene. The idea that we can say "This man - Patient Zero - brought it to North America then close the door and say we're done with that, is appalling. And the other idea that we can accept HIV as the sole cause - given the critiques from a whole range of people from Micheal Callen, and Stewart Marshall - and Duesberg too, - is also appalling. Those critiques definitely deserve to be listened too.

The film is very, very careful in what it says. It makes a critique of the HIV-hypothesis as the sole cause, and says one thing very simply. We don't know what the cause of AIDS is. We have never proven that HIV is the sole cause. We have no idea what it could be. That's very, very different from what Duesberg does. I think Duesberg critique of the HIV-hypothesis is useful. I think his alternative-hypothesis has almost no merit. He should apply the very detailed scrutiny he applies to the HIV-hypothesis to his own hypothesis because it's full of holes. It ignores the reality of what we've been through. I don't know what his motivation is when he gets on national TV and says, "I think HIV is harmless and I would inject myself with it this minute. I don't know what ANYONE'S motivations could be for such a statement. It does violence to people living with HIV and AIDS. People are living with HIV. The epidemiological connections between HIV and AIDS are SO profound that it seems impossible to me personally - and I think to most of us - that they can NOT be connected in some way. My position would be we need to ask a lot more questions about how they're connected.

C.M-S: What are your plans for the next film?
JG: Two projects. One is a feature - an adaption of a play by Michel Marc Beuchar three gay teenagers in northern Quebec in 1912. It's very complex and convoluted, romantic and sexy. The other is a project about circumcision and Pier Trudeau - our former Canadian Premier.

Colin de la Motte-Sherman

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