Reading Between the Lines of History: John Greyson on “Proteus”
by Gary M. Kramer
John Greyson‘s films are outrageous in all senses of the word — wildly stylish, full of bawdy content, and bursting with outrage. An outspoken filmmaker, Greyson’s features are fascinating character studies that mix history, sexuality, and politics. From his AIDS musical “Zero Patience” to “Lilies,” a play-within-a-film set in a prison, Greyson has always dramatized issues of human rights for homosexuals.
With “Proteus,” Greyson continues to investigate these themes. Set in 1735, on Robben Island — the Cape Town, South Africa penal colony where Nelson Mandela was held — this fact-based film concerns the lengthy relationship between native Claas Blank (Rouxnet Brown) and Rijkhaart Jacobsz (Neil Sandilands) who were executed on sodomy charges. In the film, Blank was also the object of affection for Virgil Niven (Shaun Smyth), a botanist who asked the prisoner to help him classify the Proteus species of the title.
indieWIRE recently spoke to the Canadian filmmaker about his provocative romance, which blends the politics of race, class, and sexuality with history and anachronism. “Proteus” is playing now in select cities.
indieWIRE: How did you learn about the story of Claas Blank?
John Greyson: Jack Lewis [co-writer/director] found the court transcript, thought the story of these two guys, their incarceration, their affair, and their execution would make an interesting feature. He asked, “Do you want to make a tri-lingual, sodomitical, botanical, low-budget feature on location?”
iW: What appealed to you about telling this largely unknown story?
Greyson: I think for both of us, the interest was reading between the lines. The transcript shows they are caught, guilty, and executed. If you read between the lines, their confessions were coerced. The most interesting thing is that for 10 years, the authorities knew about these guys, and looked the other way, then they were brought to trial.
iW: This is your second film set in a prison. Have you ever been arrested?
Greyson: No. I’ve tried [kidding]… I’ve been involved in civil disobedience around censorship. Semi-close calls, but nothing particularly dramatic.
It’s a funny contradiction because I like being part of a demonstration, but the minute someone hands me a microphone, I freeze.
iW: What other influential discoveries did you make in your research?
Greyson: When we were researching, it was coincidence that the naming of the [Proteus] flower was the same year as their execution. It opened up our story in terms of metaphor of classification and naming. My father is a botanist. I’m sure that had nothing to do with it.
iW: In “Zero Patience,” your character Richard Burton says, “Sometimes the facts have to be rearranged to get at the real truth.” Does that idea apply to “Proteus”?
Greyson: In “Proteus,” we have the Mandela quote — “Some of the things told this court are true and some are not true.” It gives an audience a critical sense of what they’ve just watched. Ironically, much of “Proteus” is true. It’s Jack and me telling our version of the story. Interpretation is the central thing to insist on. We can footnote every fact, and the interpretation is always what’s at stake. It’s very important to understand it is co-written, directed, etc. by both Jack and I. In every way, it was full collaboration. Neither of us could have made this on our own. It was a hybrid, a cross-fertilization of our two brains. We come from different places politically and aesthetically but we share concerns of history.
iW: You deliberately include anachronisms into the story to get at a larger idea.
Greyson: Every time you think you’re diving into deep history, there is a jeep or radio interrupting your identification. The ’60s anachronisms point to Mandela. They are the present coming to haunt the past. The wetbag [a torture device] was used at height of Apartheid struggle. It is recognizable to South African audiences.
iW: Do you think your film has other parallels to the present day?
Greyson: How many states still have sodomy laws?
iW: What can you discuss about sodomy laws in South Africa, Canada, Holland and the U.S. both in the 18th century and today?
Greyson: We had to do our research, so I know them all. We started with Claas and Rijkhaart’s story, and we tripped over the Amsterdam story of 70 men executed for sodomy in 1730, so that seemed to be something we could move forward on.
iW: All of your films deal, albeit in different ways, with the crime of being gay in society. Why is this issue so important to you?
Greyson: When I first came out — at 19 — I was still illegal. There was this irony that living as an adult, I could vote, drive, and drink, but I could not fuck. The work began with that contradiction. It went from being marginalized to being so extremely mainstream in ways I couldn’t have imagined 25 years ago. Historians traced homosexuality being [condemned] by religion, the state, psychology, etc. — those places we run up against the acceptance of society. It’s become the great subject for many of us gay artists who have returned to the names society puts on us and the consequences of those names.
iW: Your films in general deal with issues of classification — from science to sexuality. Do you identify with labels? Do you label yourself a political filmmaker? A queer filmmaker? A Canadian filmmaker?
Greyson: YES, YES, YES, I am someone who is very interested in words, never so much in claiming them for myself since words are so unstable, their meanings shift and change. I use labels all the time, there is a shorthand, but there is an extreme danger. Being aware of that is more important than taking a pro/con stance.
iW: So which label do you prefer — gay, queer, homosexual…?
Greyson: Queer fits good.
iW: Do you think Blank is self-defined as queer?
Greyson: This is what drove us — in the court record, the [sodomy] crimes were mutually perpetrated. The only way he could claim his dignity was in confessing. He says it in two languages and the translators translated it in three. This is how we wanted our narrative to resolve the moment of claiming identity for the first time it condemns him to death.
The word [gay] means something different today than 25 years ago, and in 1735 in a colony that didn’t speak English. What we got excited about, is to identify the places where self-conscious homosexual identity emerges in the culture. Claas sees himself fucking around. It is not an identity. He says, “I am Claas. I am going to get out of here.” His choice in the end to admit something to the world, is what our film turns on.
iW: Like your other work, “Proteus” addresses issues of sexual shame. Why is this theme important to you?
Greyson: The shame of yesterday, we are still struggling with today. It turns in to prejudice and homophobia. What is interesting is the contrast between Rijkhaart, who owns his sexuality, and who claimed it for better or worse, versus someone who hasn’t. Claas is an opportunist. He fucks [men] but can’t admit it. [Niven is repressed]
iW: The film has probably your most impassioned, erotic sex scenes, especially those between Blank and Jacobsz, when Niven spies on them. Surprisingly, however, there is perhaps less nudity in “Proteus” than in your other work.
Greyson: The sex was driven by story issues, establishing the triangle. Just as Niven watches them fuck he also watches them die. The voyeurism is what drove those scenes. If I’m telling a story, a fuck scene has to move the story forward. Every sex scene is development in terms of story and character.
There is more nudity in this one, to the point where distributors said they don’t do pornography.
iW: Were the actors concerned about performing the sex scenes, and taking parts in a queer film?
Greyson: Twenty years ago it was hard to find actors — gay or straight — to play in a gay film or keep their clothes on. Now, they feel playing gay is a smart career move, the roles are richer. The bigger crisis is for gay actors to be out and get work. Somehow there is still a prejudice against it in film. Most are discouraged and give up. Is this homophobia on the part of casting agents, producers, and directors? Sure.
iW: You shot the film on DV? Do you prefer that medium, or would you have rather shot on film?
Greyson: In some ways, the culture answers that for me. I doubt I’ll ever be able to shoot on film ever again. We shot digital and blew it up to 35mm. Next time we won’t have to — the theatres will all be digital.
iW: Shooting on Robben Island must have been difficult. Can you describe that experience?
Greyson: That’s the only way we could have made the film, in the actual location where the story happened. It was a priority to get permission to shoot there. Shooting in penguin colony, in the quarry, or on the shores where they fished was very important for visualizing their story. It adds immense production value to the film, and it is so important serving their story and being true to what actually happened.
It made our 18-day shoot [difficult]. We spent much of that time in trucks driving madly to next location to catch the sun.
iW: What was your budget for “Proteus”?
Greyson: $300,000 U.S. in cash, and $150,000 in deferrals and donations.
iW: You have Strand distributing this film. Do you have trouble getting your films picked up?
Greyson: I’ve been pretty lucky considering. This is the fifth film I’ll have in theatrical release. Every one has had big festival play and some theatrical distribution. This is the seventh feature. Most of the credit goes to a pretty enlightened arts council in Canada, which doesn’t let the market decide what gets [made and played]. Every time I talk to American friends who complain, I realize how lucky I am.
iW: You have always been as much a filmmaker as an activist. Do you think these ideas are what motivated you to make “Proteus”?
Greyson: When I made “Zero Patience,” I got letters from 18-year-old, HIV-positive kids, and some of the letters [show] I really made a difference. It reminds you that is the reason I do this stuff. Because my films are more artsy, they aren’t going to [be widely distributed] …but they still can subversively get out there and make ripples. What gay films are mainstream? Real social change happens around gay and lesbian culture — the ways culture has worked — and representation, good, bad, or indifferent, has made a real difference.