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// Films // Fig Trees

Fig Trees

John Greyson / Canada / 2009 / 104 ' / English

Credits

Jared Raab
John Greyson
Ali Kazimi & Jesse Rosensweet
David Wall
John Greyson

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A Documentary Opera about Pills, Gertrude Stein and AIDS activism.

Synopsis

In 1999, South African AIDS activist Zackie Achmat went on a treatment strike, refusing to take his pills until they were widely available to all South Africans. This symbolic act became a cause celebre, helping build his group Treatment Action Campaign into a national movement -- yet with each passing month, Zackie grew sicker...

FIG TREES is a documentary opera about AIDS activists Tim McCaskell of Toronto and Zackie Achmat of Capetown as they fight for access to treatment drugs. Documentary interviews, speeches, press conferences and demonstrations are sampled, taken apart, and set to music, replayed this time as operatic scenes. A surreal fictional narrative is intercut with the stories of their struggles against government and the pharmaceutical industry. In this fictional world, Gertrude Stein decides to write a tragic opera about Tim and Zackie and their saint-like heroism. She kidnaps them, transports them to Niagara Falls, and forces them to sing a series of complicated avant-garde vocal compositions. However, when Zackie ends his treatment strike and starts taking his pills, Gertrude realizes that there will be no more tragedy, and thus, no more opera.

FIG TREES performs musical and political inversion on the music and words of Gertrude Stein's 1934 avant-garde classic opera Four Saints in Three Acts, singing it upside down and backwards. Using compositional techniques of chance, palindromes, and polyphany, FIG TREES finds points of political harmony and musical convergence in operatic and documentary sequences that profile the overlapping stories of various activists: Gugu Dlamini, Stephen Lewis, Simon Nkoli, and most of all, Tim and Zackie. Featuring in the supporting cast a singing albino squirrel, an amputee busker, a ghostly male soprano, and St. Teresa of Avila, FIG TREES tells the story of Zackie's treatment strike in song, and the larger story of the fight for pills on two continents, and across two decades, asking: what does it mean for us to sing about AIDS?

 

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