Among Greyson’s earlier works is the groundbreaking 1993 film Zero Patience, a comic-musical that premiered as a direct challenge to the prevailing AIDS orthodoxy of the time and in response to Randy Shilts’s controversial 1987 book And the Band Played On. The film was in the vanguard of modernizing the zeitgeist surrounding HIV/AIDS and gay men, and it was among the earliest film pieces to employ humour as a foil against the horrifying disease.
“I wanted to engage the audience more critically,” Greyson says. “Not just make them reach for the Kleenex box, but to keep their brains in the room.”
Three years later came Lilies, perhaps Greyson’s most commercially successful and critically acclaimed film. A drama set in a small town in Quebec, it’s a story of youth sexuality, Catholic education, intrigue and mystery. It is a rich political comment on the Mount Cashel Orphanage sexual- and physical-abuse scandal, still fresh then in Canadian headlines.
They were compelling films, charged with queer themes and powerful political overtones — the kind of film projects that are notoriously difficult to finance.
“At the risk of getting nostalgic, I was really lucky to be part of the late-’80s/early-’90s new wave of Canadian cinema: Bruce McDonald, Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema,” Greyson says. “Lilies was one of the last films of that ilk, ending a period of altruist cinema in Canada.”
It seems somehow ironic that, in the time of gay marriage and It Gets Better videos, gay films with powerful political messages are more difficult to fund now than they were 20 years ago.
“To have that window before the door slammed shut — to get Zero Patience, Lilies, Proteus  made — it’s hard to imagine those scripts getting funded now,” Greyson says. “I’ve returned in some ways to where I began, which is to the arts councils; Fig Trees  would never get funded other than through those sources today. The Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council have always been queer-friendly places to go.”
There are also autobiographical threads running through Greyson’s many short films, installations and feature pieces.
“A lot of the work never seemed that way at the time,” he says. “But looking back it reflects what I was interested in at the time, especially the activism I was involved in: AIDS Action Now in Toronto, anti-censorship, battles around copyright that came out of the artist community, and most recently, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid.”
So much has changed for gay people over the years. The battles are not all won here at home, but Greyson suggests we have renewed social responsibilities.
“It’s night and day,” he says. “When we think about the first video I made in ’84 [The Perils of Pedagogy] versus where we are today, we’ve achieved so much nationally and on the ground here in Toronto. But we have the responsibility to look globally to see what we can contribute to existing activist conversations out there in the world.”
When I ask if his body of work could help queer youth of today understand the struggles that came before their time and perhaps inspire them to use film as an instrument of progressive political change in the world, Greyson smiles and responds cautiously: “The minute you start calculating, I think, is the minute you fall on your nose,” he says. “The subject remains urgent and depends what definition is used . . . and so much more debate has been built into curriculum now. It could be hipper, but it’s in place.
“I put my energy into types of activism which aren’t about tolerance or just about liberal coexistence,” he adds. “It’s my priority to put it into tougher issues. But I really do value, on a day-to-day basis, those people who are doing that work, whether around fighting for equal rights, adoption or gay marriage — now a billion-dollar industry that I’m making a critical film about as we speak. That work needs to be done, too.”
Greyson says things have to work at different levels.
“That’s where I probably softened over the years,” he says. “I probably was a bit more militant in focusing on the radical agenda in the past. Things have to work at different levels, and that’s the life we live. I would rather people do activism that they’re comfortable with and that they see a connection to. I may disagree with their activism, but that’s fine, too.”
Andrew Murphy is director of programming for the Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film and Video Festival.
Impatient: John Greyson Retrospective DVD box set/book launch
Fri, March 30, 6pm
TIFF Bell Lightbox
350 King St W
Retrospective film series runs to Thurs, April 5
Visit TIFF Bell Lightbox and AGO for tickets and show times