Interview: John Greyson

John Greyson is a Canadian filmmaker, activist, writer, and professor at York University. Since 1988, he has won three Teddy Awards at the Berlinale, as well as numerous other accolades at film festivals around the world. His latest short, Green Laser, documents his participation in the July 2011 Gaza flotilla on the Canadian ship Tahrir. The film makes use of re-appropriated footage from the 1960 Zionist epic Exodus, rewriting a shirtless Paul Newman’s dialogue in support of the flotilla. The clips are spliced together with interviews with other flotilla participants, as well as images from Athens’ Syntagma Square and Riverdance performances. Below an interview with John, where we speak about his infamous 2009 confrontation with the Toronto International Film Festival, queer solidarity, and activism.

I want to start with your thoughts on the two film festivals you’re closely associated with — TIFF and Berlinale. There was a well-publicized incident a few years ago when you pulled your film from TIFF in response to its Tel Aviv spotlight. Do you see a difference in the politics behind TIFF and Berlinale, if there are any politics behind them at all?

One of the things we said really clearly at the time of the TIFF protest was that because we were speaking of a position of love. TIFF was our film school and remains one of the great film festivals committed to new voices and world cinema. So in every way, the Tel Aviv spotlight that they ran in 2009 seemed an aberration, out of sync with the TIFF we knew and loved. Eventually there were two or three thousand signatures from around the world, from queer philosopher Judith Butler to English author John Berger to Danny Glover and Jane Fonda. It was quite a high profile thing, and it’s because TIFF did have that resonance with people.
People look to TIFF for leadership, the same way they look to Berlin for leadership. And the issue, and this is one of the crucial things to repeat, wasn’t the films or filmmakers themselves. The protest was against the spotlight itself, it’s against an administrative adoption of what seemed to be a marketing campaign; the official Israeli state department’s rebranding of itself being tied into this festival was something that we had to speak back to. That was the core of the protest, and I would say to this day that both Berlin and TIFF represent the excitement of what a world film festival can be. Sure they have their mass market side, but they’ve still continued their commitment to world, independent, and experimental voices and that, to me, is something worth fighting for.

So you see this as an isolated incident, rather than a political statement that is being made.

It was definitely isolated. TIFF continues to do all sorts of excellent programming and initiatives. For instance they’ve made a permanent commitment to African and North African cinema with the hiring of a programmer dedicated to that world cinema. They continue to do fantastic world programming. Even in that year, they had excellent Palestinian films. So again, the issue wasn’t about the programming or the overall festival, but about the festival choosing to get in bed with a very dubious partner. And remember, 2009 was the Gaza War, and this incredible massacre of civilians. It was a particular moment where a lot of us woke up and said it’s time to take a stand. I’ve been an activist for almost 30 years, and Israel-Palestine was always there, and I’d signed a few petitions but never really done anything. But with the Gaza War, a line was crossed. It’s not that the Gaza War was that much worse than some other things that have happened; it’s been a continuous set of wars, violations, incursions. The violence of the occupation is pretty consistent. But this was something that really shook us out of our silence.

Tell me about the trip. Was there always a plan to make a film out of the experience?

There was always a plan to make a film. Out of the TIFF experience, I ended up becoming active in the issue, particularly around queers organizing around Israeli apartheid. We have a bit of a notorious group called Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) in Toronto, which keeps getting banned by Pride in the city. We always fight and then we overturn the ban. So it’s very interesting local politics because you see a community in struggle around these issues, a community who historically has been very activist and committed to free speech. There’s a very aggressive attempt to silence the queer community and that tradition by a very straight, right-wing Israeli lobby. And it’s very effective, it silences people.

Are you speaking about Canada specifically?

Within North America and within Toronto in particular there’s an aggressive Israeli lobby. Toronto has been working hard to try and silence the artists who speak out, the queers who speak out like QuAIA, even my university where I teach. In sort of every aspect of my life, I run up against this wall called The Israel Lobby, which just won’t stop until every critic is silenced.

I find it interesting that Israel has spent so much money on gay tourism campaigns in the past three years.

And look at what a success it is. They were declared — or maybe they declared it themselves — as the Top Gay tourist destination of 2011. They’re spending lots of money to get people to come party on the beach. What we’re asking is whether or no you want to get in bed with a state where they preach free speech and equal rights for gays, but oppress a very significant portion of their population, through what I think is accurately called apartheid.

So you would suggest that they are trying to co-opt gay culture.

The term that I think is gaining more and more currency and recognition is pinkwashing. They’re very aggressively using gay rights as the bandaid to stick on the occupation. So every time someone raises questions about the wall, about the checkpoints, about the passes the Palestinians have to carry — all these obvious examples of apartheid policies, they say “no no, we’re big on gay rights.” For me, that’s reminiscent of 20 years ago when the South African gay community was saying “Come party in Cape Town. This thing called apartheid is unfortunate, but you won’t even notice it in the bars.” But of course one wouldn’t notice it, because 80% of the citizens weren’t allowed in the bars. It was time to take a stand then, and I think in a similar way, time to take a stand now

Why would they choose the gay community in particular? I would consider it an odd choice, as the gay community has been one that’s historically been very politically involved.

These types of international initiatives work in two ways. Specifically with the gay community, in terms of pinkwashing, as I’ve just said. But equally, and sometimes more strategically, in its relationship with Europe, and with Hillary Clinton, who famously declared two months ago that gay rights were human rights. It feeds into a discourse which is familiar. Of course we all remember when George Bush suddenly became a feminist for Afghanistan. A right-wing Christian who opposes women’s rights, abortion, and sex education, but is suddenly for women’s rights in Afghanistan. So we think it’s two sides of the same coin. Whenever right-wing states like the US — and I include Hillary when I say this — or Israel are using gay rights, gender rights, feminism, to accomplish their foreign policy, it’s something that we have to stand up against. It comes down to the principle of ‘not in our name,’ what many Jews have organized around the world. When a world Jewish community stands up and says ‘Not in our name. Israel can’t commit these crimes.’ And the growing Jewish opposition to apartheid has certainly been one of the cornerstones of influencing my activism, and that leadership has been hugely influential throughout the world.

There’s a trend lately of filmmakers who make queer-themed films to react against their labelling as specifically queer filmmakers. Is it safe to say that you do stand by the label of queer filmmaker?

The best things you can say about these labels are that they’re functional in particular contexts. I’ll use the example of the word filmmaker. The word is a bit of a shorthand. I’ve made some film on celluloid, but most of them are on three quarter inch tape and digital and HD. But filmmaker becomes the functional inadequate term.
Queer is actually a bit better, because when it was coined or recalimed, it was all about saying it’s not about who you sleep with or sense of identity. It’s the opposite. It’s a refusal of identarian categories. A refusal of saying ‘I am gay and always will be.’ It’s saying ‘I am defined queer, queer perverse, out of sync with society, and I throw that back in society’s face.’ It’s about society’s labelling, and a refusal of that. Some of best queer friends are straight. I always think of Tom Robinson. This is 70s history. His big song Glad To Be Gay went to number one. He was a cornerstone of the punk movement in Britain. He came out queer, had a big hit with the song, and was very visible in the gay rights movement, and in the middle of that he met a woman and fell in love and they’ve been together ever since. And the gay movement at the time felt this huge sense of betrayal. And all Tom did was fall in love. He in some way represents the poster boy of queer.

Would you say there’s a danger in shying away from these identifications though? A lot of the progress which was made in the last hundred years was done in the name of something which had a term attached to it, whether that be gay or feminist or otherwise.

What I’m saying is that I think queer is a different process than putting a label on something. Just like feminism is a different process than labelling. Feminism is an analysis of power in society. So is queer, and how power uses gender to organize and exploit. In both cases, they’re critiques of power. And that makes it distinct from that liberal, neo-liberal, or conservative tendency to construct gay as an identity. This tendency towards identifying as a gay man that can get married and have kids and cats and a mortgage. And that move from gay consumerism is the opposite of what we’re struggling for. Marriage is a great example of this. Canada fought long and hard and early for gay marriage, and was one of the first countries to achieve it. This was a huge victory, but when that victory became appropriated by a wedding industry, which is now a billion dollar industry with wedding conventions and Honeymoon packages to Tel Aviv, then there’s some obvious problems.

You also referenced this problem in your film with the inclusion of the Omer Gershon incident, where an actor was allegedly hired by the Israeli prime minister’s office to present himself as an American gay rights activist criticizing the flotilla. Can you talk about that a bit?

Manon [another activist on the flotilla] and I were both on the boat, we’re both out and everyone was comfortable. It wasn’t an issue until Israel made it an issue by claiming that queers weren’t allowed on the flotilla. So we issued a humorous press release declaring that “The queer contingent of the flotilla was happy to respond.” We were trying to expose Israel for just how cynical that effort was, when the Prime Minister’s office hires an actor to impersonate a gay activist.

I wondered if you could speak about Greece as well. The ship set sail from Greece at the same time the protests were happening. What was the connection between what was and is happening in Greece to the flotilla you participated in?

That’s why I included footage of the protests in Syntagma Square. And it’s where the name of the film comes from. The demonstration of the lasers on the parliament seemed to me as one of the most inspired uses of people’s power. The protesters were prevented by a barricade to getting up close to the parliament, so they used cheap $10 technology to zap the windows. It was so wonderful because it was like this nest of hornets. I’m extremely excited about innovation at the level of demostrations and activism. You can tell from my work, I’m really interested in what pop culture and humour and re-appropriation can do, in terms of making activists think through issues in new ways. But especially trying to involve people who haven’t thought about Israel-Palestine. I use film as a way to open up or contribute to a conversation.

So would you say that there is a solidarity between the various movements?

Absolutely. For me the excitement’s always been how to connect the local and the global. It’s no surprise that there was a huge presence of queer activists in Greece. They are a massive part of new wave of activism around the world. And Tahrir Square is especially significant because it was also a cruising spot for queers. So everywhere you see this new wave, whether it’s Arab Spring or Occupy, you see queers at the centre of it.

John Greyson’s short Green Laser is being screened several times at the Berlinale.


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