Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Reel Artists film fest

Real death, reel life

This year’s Reel Artists Film Festival, Toronto’s eclectic festival on visual art running Thu, Feb 26 to Mar 1, offers up three compelling documentaries on iconoclastic gay artists from three different countries.

General Idea: Art, AIDS and the fin de siècle by Annette Mangaard is a must-see for its snippets of video done by Toronto’s famous art trio in the 1970s and ’80s. It took a long while — and success abroad —  for Canada’s staid art world establishment to warm to the chicanery of Jorge Zontal, Felix Partz and AA Bronson. In this old footage you can see one reason why — they knew how to have fun.

Whimsical as they are crafty, the three gay men of General Idea — a romantic as well as creative trio — harnessed the strategies of pop culture, consumerism, media and celebrity as powerfully as they critiqued them.

It wasn’t all fun and games. Both Partz and Zontal died of AIDS in 1994. The disease and “viral art” were signature components of their frenzied later work. Felix, June 5, 1994, Bronson’s shocking photo portrait of his dead lover, looks like some strange post-modern Egyptian mummy — a hauntingly beautiful and painful image.

A good primer for those unfamiliar with General Idea, sadly, the 50-minute film is less than a sum of its parts (Felix notwithstanding); even with surviving member Bronson’s smart commentary, the pedestrian doc never approaches the vertiginous joy and mayhem characteristic of Canada’s most celebrated art collective.

This free student screening on Fri, Feb 27 at 3:15pm is introduced by Bronson himself.

The fest also presents the Toronto premiere of feature doc The Universe of Keith Haring by Christina Clausen. Simple black outlines depicting iconic characters — Haring’s work is instantly recognizable. Within a few short years he went from attending a commercial art school in Pittsburgh to becoming one of the most celebrated pop artists of the 20th century. Prior to his death from AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31 he was a permanent fixture in the club scene in pre-Giuliani New York so even those not interested in art can groove to early footage of Madonna and Grace Jones plus commentary from Fab 5 Freddy, David LaChapelle and Yoko Ono. Clausen’s deft use of existing interview and performance footage captures Haring’s generous spirit and lust for life. 

Universe screens at 4:45pm on Feb 27.

Later that evening is Derek, a feature doc on British maverick Derek Jarman by gay filmmaker and friend Isaac Julien. It’s a loving, poetic assembly of home movies, film clips, interviews and slightly off-putting commentary by Jarman star Tilda Swinton.

Jarman’s wildly inventive films include The Last of England, Caravaggio and Edward II; he also directed music videos for groups like The Smiths and Pet Shop Boys. Jarman died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 52.

The 8:30pm, Feb 27 screening is introduced by Toronto filmmaker John Greyson, fresh back from the premiere his documentary/opera film on AIDS activists, Fig Trees, in Berlin.

All screenings are at the Al Green Theatre (750 Spadina Ave) and cost $10 in advance and $12 at the door; go to Canadianart.ca/reelartists.

In case you’re counting: That’s four great artists dead from AIDS — three in the same year! — at the height of their powers. Think about what they could have accomplished if they had lived. Haring would only be turning 50 this spring; the others, like Bronson, would be vibrant sixtysomethings. These films, in some small but crucial way, help keep their work alive and vital.