Arts & Entertainment
6 min

Queer heat

In addition to two docs on queer Canadian artists (see FLicKeR in story above and General Idea below), this year’s Hot Docs has a number of documentaries chronicling queer experience all over the world, including Iran (Be Like Others), Italy (Suddenly, Last Winter), Australia (Searching 4 Sandeep) and the US (Eleven Minutes, see below). One of the most memorable films at the festival investigates a gruesome tragedy in tropical Fiji.

On Jul 1, 2001, the director-general of the Fiji Red Cross John Scott and his partner Greg Scrivener were murdered in their home on the South Pacific island; they were decapitated. There is far more to this tragedy than meets the eye. Director Annie Goldson follows John’s brother Owen Scott as he travels back to his family’s homeland to try to untangle what drove a pious young rugby player named Apete Kaisau to kill John and Greg.

An Island Calling is so compelling because the director and her protagonist do what many refuse to: They take what could easily be dismissed as a random act of violence and put it into a context, showing the unanticipated ripples of historical traumas in all their complexity.

John and Owen Scott were fourth-generation white Fiji islanders whose great-grandfather was an important missionary there in the late 19th century. They were a respected family among a privileged white elite, enjoying a tony lifestyle on the backs of native Fijians and of Indians — descendants of the indentured laborers imported by Britain to harvest the sugar crops. We learn about the brothers’ tumultuous post-war childhoods with a bullying, drunken playboy of a dad and of idyllic trips to his mistress’s private island once the boys’ mother had left in the 1960s and resettled the family in New Zealand.

Fiji achieved independence in 1970. No longer a colony, the “white mischief days,” as Owen calls them, were over ? at least officially. But great disparity remained, as well as tensions between the Indian and the Fijian populations.

In 1987, before the first of several nationalist coups, John returned to Fiji as an adult with his boyfriend in tow. The out couple were the talk of the town and became a rallying point for the island’s gay community and a sore spot for many others, whose faith — as taught to the islanders by John’s ancestors ? was taking on a more fundamentalist fervour.

The couple lived in the big family house and hired Fijian locals to help out, including the man who would kill them. Apete came from a very religious family — whom Owen meets in some very awkward scenes — and became gripped with a homophobic zeal despite his friendship with the men. Meanwhile, a violent, chaotic but ultimately failed coup in 2000 brought John much prominence as he tried to intervene when the government was taken hostage.

There is a particularly compelling montage in the film that juxtaposes the different interviewees offering their hypotheses of why John and Greg were murdered, all based on rumour and speculation. There are a number of different possibilities but nothing is certain. (Adding to all the confusion was a bumbling investigation by an overtly homophobic police chief who spread lies about their lifestyle.) Apete was found not guilty by reason of insanity and is not interviewed, so we can only guess as to his motives.

We do, however, know everything about how Fiji was a powder keg ready to erupt, an explosive blend of colonial oppression and post-colonial economic injustice. The ensuing Christian fundamentalism, machismo, xenophobia and resentment made scapegoats of these well-heeled white gay men. An Island Calling is a completely fascinating examination of how one couple was caught up in history.

An Island Calling screens on Thu, Apr 24 at 7:15pm and Apr 25 at 2:15pm at the ROM (100 Queen’s Park).

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If you’ve ever wanted to know how long a fashion show lasts, Jay McCarroll, winner of the debut season of TV’s Project Runway in 2005, kindly provides the answer in a new feature documentary on him: as long as a long shit. Or, if you want to be literal about things, 11 minutes, which is the title of said documentary. Eleven Minutes, directed by Michael Selditch and Robert Tate (who also made 2006’s Bravo TV special Project Jay) chronicles the production of McCarroll’s spring 2007 ready-to-wear collection from the very beginning to the very end.

The list of what and who McCarroll has to juggle just to create his garments is enough to make your head explode: the shoe guy, the hair guy, the jewellery lady, his friends who are helping him for free, manufacturing reps from China and New York ? and that’s just on the creative end of things. There’s still his PR firm, sales reps, the press, the models, the backstage crew, the buyers and the documentary crew themselves, always in tow, always filming.

The results are fantastic: perfectly paced, intelligently edited and honest to the core. The latter comes courtesy of McCarroll, who is frank, self-aware, charming and relatively even-keeled, considering the nine-ring circus that rages throughout. In the end, the doc is movingly evokes McCarroll’s predicament and the double-edged sword that is winning Project Runway. All that was TV and spectacle, not the fashion business. No matter how much airtime he got, he’s still a new designer, learning in the hardest way possible just what is involved in producing something that, if you’re very very lucky, can last longer than a long shit.

Eleven Minutes screens at 9:15pm on Thu, Apr 24 and 11:45pm on Apr 25 at the Bloor (506 Bloor St W).

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There is a small group of people who are responsible for what Toronto’s art world has become. A good place to start is General Idea (GI). The trio — Jorge Zontal, Felix Partz and AA Bronson — didn’t invent Queen West, but they certainly were chief among those who laid the blueprint for it and for what queer, politically engaged artists could accomplish.

Annette Mangaard’s new documentary, General Idea: Art, AIDS and the Fin de Siècle, doesn’t linger on the hometown achievements of Toronto’s most famous art exports but tries to chart their international successes and to parse the arc of their career. She doesn’t really succeed but then again she doesn’t have to: General Idea’s work is so iconic and their methods so singular that no matter how you bungle its explication, the work still speaks for itself.

The trio all arrived in Toronto from elsewhere — Bronson and Partz from Manitoba, Zontal from Europe — and coalesced around the theatre scene and its happenings (this was the late ’60s when people could say “happenings” without wincing). The three men did a project together entitled General Idea. People confused the name of the piece with the name of the group and it stuck. Their art-making was like something out of alt-culture 101: They didn’t like the available models (such as the teensy art scene of Toronto in the late ’60s) so they made one up for themselves.

Their project announced itself fairly quickly through videos and print work: They were a viral presence in the media. Their critique of mass media was delivered from the belly of the beast. No detachment for the GI boys; like soldiers in the McLuhan army their medium was their message. Their early videos look like Dick Cavett-esque chat shows while the format of File magazine, right down to its logo, was lifted from Life Magazine (so much so that Life threatened legal action).

General Idea fared better in Europe than it did here. Across the pond the idea of a collective of artists working together was seen as radical (at one point during the doc, Bronson incredulously remarks, “They thought of us as Marxists!”), whereas in Canada they were seen more as jokesters and parodists. But the group’s success grew and, ironically, AIDS, which ended up killing two of them, launched General Idea into the upper stratosphere of art stardom. The group’s sly reappropriation of Robert Indiana’s LOVE logo into their AIDS logo was massively successful, covering billboards and galleries across Europe and the US; a demonstration of just how good General Idea had gotten at its brand of parasitic, viral imagery.

Zontal and Partz were both diagnosed with AIDS in the early ’90s and both declined steadily. Still, this time limit forced a productivity that’s responsible for General Idea’s most iconic works: the AIDS logo in all its permutations (sculpture, painting, wallpaper, rings, pins) and the AZT pill installations.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where Mangaard goes wrong in all this. She has Bronson narrating: His tale is a survivor’s tale and his reminiscences are nothing if not affectionate. She has excellent talking-head interviews for context: curators Peggy Gale and Barr Gilmore (an ex-GI studio assistant), artists Andrew Zealley and Luis Jacob, gallerists like Jessica Bradley, all of whom are articulate and engaging.

The film’s length is largely responsible. Commissioned by TVOntario, it runs 47 minutes, so everything gets a short shrift. Mangaard attempts to narrate the life of General Idea by hopscotching from one work to the next, which would be fine except she doesn’t have the time to establish a proper context for anything.

This isn’t a documentary for novices simply because it’s an onslaught of poorly explained work. And it will bore GI enthusiasts with its superficial interpretations and rehashings.

General Idea was never made for TV after all — they did everything in their power to dismantle TV, from the inside out.

General Idea: Art, AIDS and the Fin de Siècle screens at 9:15pm on Sun, Apr 20 at the Bloor (506 Bloor St W) and 9:30pm Apr 26 at the ROM (100 Queen’s Park).