John Greyson on “International Dawn Chorus Day” / interview

The Canadian film and video artist was born in Nelson, British Columbia in 1960. He studied film at the Canadian Film Center and has made over 60 award-winning feature films, installations, transmedia works and shorts. In 1989, he won a Teddy Award for “Urinal”; in 1991, he received another for “The Making of Monsters”. His work combines documentary and fictional elements and explores issues including queer activism, homophobic violence, AIDS activism, anti-apartheid and anti-war struggles, conflicts in the Middle East, police entrapment and prison abolition. He has taught film production at York University in Toronto since 2014.

What was your starting point for “International Dawn Chorus Day”?

On May 2, 2020, at the height of the first lockdown, I learned two things. First, that the next day would be the world’s 36th annual International Dawn Chorus Day, a global celebration of bird song.  Second, that activist filmmaker Shady Habash had died in suspicious circumstances in Egypt’s notorious Tora prison the day before. For me, these two stories together combined to deliver a peculiar kick to the gut. Seven years earlier, I’d been locked up in that same prison, also indefinitely detained, jailed in a roundup with hundreds of others in the aftermath of the Rabaa Square Massacre. As I learned more about Shady’s life and work and death, and watched his videos, and read his final despairing letters that his friends smuggled out, his words viscerally brought back morning memories of staring at the cell ceiling, watching the night shadows bleach into cool grey, straining to hear the faint call of the dawn chorus: “Prison doesn’t kill, loneliness does.”

I emailed friends and family on six continents, asking them to film their dawn choruses the next morning, shooting on their phones. 40 responded, bemused by the request, perhaps welcoming a change from the daily boredom of their truncated lockdown routines. My editor Kalil and I (working remotely) started to shape the clips into a whimsical zoom-grid, premised on the idea that birds from around the world had gathered to talk about Shady, trading theories and gossip about what might have happened.

 And then, a month later, Sarah Hegazi took her life. I was part of an ad-hoc queer group in Toronto, providing support to the dozen LGBT refugees from Cairo, who’d been imprisoned the year before for flying a rainbow flag at a Mashrou Leila concert. Sarah was one of them, and I’d met her a couple of times. She was unforgettable — intense, passionate, deeply committed to radical change, battling her demons with the warmest of brave smiles. Filming at her memorial, I was overwhelmed by the anecdotes and tears that poured forth from so many. She had touched many lives. Yet nothing could prepare any of us for the groundswell of tributes that followed, across Europe and the Americas and the Arab world, in the months to come: vigils, concerts, songs, murals, poems. Her legacy became a bird song, carried on the wind. 

Do you have a favourite moment in the film? Which one and why this one?

When the birds start to leave their zoom — and the ghosts of Shady and Sarah fill the frame… 

What do you like about the short form?

You have to jump in deep, with both feet — and I love the discipline of saying just enough — but then going back and trimming out even more — so the viewers are left hungering…

Photo © Brent Ingram

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