July 12, 2009
I had the lucky opportunity to watch Fig Trees and then speak with John Greyson about this complicated, funny, intellectual and political film that somehow links documentary interviews of AIDS activists Tim McCaskell and Zachie Achmat with operatic meditations on themes raised by their “heroic” lives: sainthood, palidromes, Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts, pigeons, squirrels, and the relations between pharmaceutical greed and international AIDS activism. My first response was how timid and confined we Americans have become due to the constraints of the no-funding for indie film. While many of my peers are certainly able to make media work that might be equally avant-garde and far-reaching, this has certainly become unimaginable in the realm of the American feature (another reason to go to dance for example).
Just one example of Greyson’s stimulating reach: he bumps the classic documentary against the traditional opera (often using split/screen), and then lets them re-align the other. The very questions concerning the relations of melos/music with (documentary) meaning that I have been recently ruminating on here are forefronted: what does it mean to force ordinary, structureless life into the heights of melodrama, or the strictures of a coherent, political argument? Can the operatic, a place of aesthetic rapture, also hold the political or rational? In the end, the film’s and activists’ refusal to play the hero, therefore disappointing the thrust of the opera and returning all to the quotidian of the documentary, serves as some sort of reckoning.