In the late 1970s, Queen Street West was alive with energy and activism, said filmmaker John Greyson. The gay rights liberation movement was strong and the arts community was open and inclusive.
At that time a young Greyson moved to Queen West from London, Ontario, because he wanted to make art and come out as queer and this was the place to do it.
“I always talk about Queen West as being my university for better or for worse,” Greyson said. “Making work and being part of the gay activist community right from the start shaped me and the work I was doing.”
Greyson didn’t study film, in fact he didn’t even graduate from high school.
But upon arriving in Toronto he joined west-end film cooperatives Trinity Square Video and Charles Street Video and later the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto (LIFT), which Greyson said, to him, stands out as a model of what a cooperative should be, not just cheap equipment but also community.
“There was so much permission and generosity back in the 1970s and the stuff I wanted to learn wasn’t being taught at universities,” Greyson said. “I was really excited by queer art and the new generation of gay artists making work about sexuality and that just wasn’t in the curriculum at OCAD or UofT or York, it was on the street.”
It was through these co-ops, being on set, helping other people create their films and through his own mistakes that Greyson said he received his education in filmmaking.
In 1991 he went to the Canadian Film Centre, which he said was important for him to make the jump into features and into a higher level of funding.
He is now a professor at York University and has obtained a master’s degree and is working on his Ph.D. in the Drama Centre at the University of Toronto.
“Once I finish the Ph.D. I’m thinking of going back and getting my Grade 12,” he said with a chuckle.
Greyson recalls working at Fuse Magazine in the 1980s, pre computers, and taking the typesetting to The Body Politic, a gay liberation magazine run by a collective. Greyson said the magazine was often under attack on freedom of speech issues, but at the same time was the centre of a dynamic activist community.
“The arts community really rallied around it, so you had this coming together of a very marginal, progressive, experimental arts scene and a radical gay liberation movement,” Greyson said. “And it all took place in a one-block radius.”
It was energizing and had a tremendous influence on his entire career and award-winning films/videos like Fig Trees, Lilies, and Zero Patience.
“Who knew it was going to imprint so strongly,” Greyson said.
His latest project, Murder in Passing, which he wrote and directed, is the first-ever transmedia ‘who-dun-it’ series for commuters with silent 30-second episodes appearing daily on Toronto’s subway platform screens and online. Murder in Passing launched Jan. 7 and airs daily until March 1.
The film-noir murder mystery continues his exploration of larger social issues and social critique.
“That combination has stayed true, right up to this project where you have this collision of video art on the subway and issues around transit, bikes and SUVS, but equally important, debates around gender,” Greyson said.
“The point of this project isn’t to provoke, it is to engage, so we are trying to reach viewers, not by shocking or alienating them, but engaging them and bring them into this conversation around these issues of transit and gender.”
Murder in Passing explores the murder of bike courier Mars Brito in Passing, B.C. and everyone in the town is a suspect.
There are visual clues embedded within every episode as well as American Sign Language signs across the 40 episodes that together spell out another clue. There are opera fugues, with clues embedded, paired with each episode, which Greyson said are hugely important for citizen sleuths to pay mind to. Solve the murder before Detective Epicene does and win prizes.
“The goal is that people will see it on the platform and be intrigued and go to the website,” he said. “There is a twitter feed and facebook updates.”
Murder in Passing commissioned by Art for Commuters and Pattison Onestop, is a Future Cinema Lab/Greyzone Production supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and Canada Council for the Arts.
The project will potentially reach one million people a day for 40 days.
“As far as we know, it is the biggest the world has seen,” Greyson said, “No one has done a public serial narrative of this scale before.”
Visit www.murderinpassing.com to watch episodes and explore clues.