Last summer, John Greyson and Tarek Loubani were arrested and detained in an Egyptian prison for seven weeks. Their story made international headlines and led to a widespread and inspiring campaign for their release. In anticipation of his upcoming TIFF talk, we spoke with Greyson, a noted Toronto filmmaker and activist, about his time behind bars, the secrets to a successful hunger strike, and the universal appeal of Robert De Niro.
It’s been a few months since your release. What has surprised you most in terms of re-acclimatizing?
There’s a very healthy instinct to want your life to return to normal almost immediately. Don’t think it will—that was advice that came from my friend Jim Loney, who was held hostage in Iraq for three months in 2006, and it’s so true. Going back to work has been challenging. I’m back full-time [teaching] at York, but the muscles aren’t quite what they were. There is also the fact that our experience brought with it a whole lot of obligations and new responsibilities, so in some ways there’s no going back.
Did you have an understanding of the massive efforts being made to free you while you were behind bars?
Not really. Certainly not at the beginning. We just had 10 minutes a week with the Canadian Embassy and we had to do everything—health checkup, legal update. I remember finding out about the TIFF press conference. That was the first time we knew that pressure was being applied on our behalf. We heard that Michael Ondaatje and Sarah Polley and Atom Egoyan were there and Emma Thompson was wearing our button. And then we’d be back in prison. It was funny because we’d go back to the cell and tell everyone “Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron signed our petition,” and they’re going, “Who?” Robert De Niro, though, that meant something to them.
At your press conference at Pearson, Tarek mentioned the brotherly relationship you guys had developed. I gather there were some quarrels.
Oh, sure. It was inevitable things. We were under incredible stress. We would have complicated debates about strategy—how to best use our 10 minutes with the embassy. Then there would be sort of brotherly fights. I don’t remember what the topic of the argument was, but once we had a fight and I felt bad about it, so afterwards I made him a chess set out of cardboard, which was actually the wrapping from cigarette cartons. Neither of us are smokers, but cigarettes are the currency of prison. A couple of packs gets you an extra 15 minutes in the exercise yard. And there’s a hierarchy, of course. Marlboroughs are on the top.
How did you decide to go on a hunger strike?
We both felt that it was one of the few things we could do to take back some agency. Tarek was able to keep us in the loop in terms of what our bodies were going through. Mostly it was about reassurance. We were on a liquids-only strike, which is obviously less extreme. The hunger pangs weren’t so bad. When we were really hungry, one of the other prisoners had this carbonated apple beverage—it was an Egyptian specialty. A glass of that would weirdly fill you up, because of the bubbles.
Speaking of beverages, Tarek mentioned this prison alcohol that you made from macaroni….
It was glue! Glue! The media reported that wrong because Tarek said that you take macaroni and you ferment it. Everyone heard ferment and assumed alcohol. It cracked us up because, of course, we’re in a cell with 36 devout Muslims. We’re not going to be making hooch!
Your sexuality was concealed by most media outlets in an effort to protect you, but were your fellow prisoners aware you are gay?
We’re pretty sure that some of them knew through their family members who are internet savvy and who were fascinated with the Free John and Tarek campaign. In terms of the actual danger in the prison cell, I think that may have been overstated. One of the funny things was when we would all take turns sharing life stories—that was the entertainment, because there was no TV—I would get up and talk about filmmaking and I would edit out all of the gay content. So what I ended up talking about was a lot of prison movies: Lilies, a prison story in Northern Quebec; Proteus, a prison story in 1735 Robben Island; Uncut, a prison story in southwestern Ontario. It was funny to de-gay my work and find out I still had a lot to say.
In terms of your filmmaking, going forward will you be more risk averse?
Hindsight is always 20/20, so there are the micro issues of what happened on that day and what resulted in our arrest. The quietness on the street really made it feel like trying to get back to our hotel was an okay thing to do. In retrospect, man, bad decision. We bought ice cream because we hadn’t eaten for eight hours. What we should have done is ask the shopkeeper if we could have stayed under the counter for the night.
What about just wishing you had stayed in your hotel?
Well, of course there’s that, but you know, Tarek is an activist and a doctor, I’m an activist and a filmmaker. This is what we do. There’s a Hippocratic oath for doctors, and I think the same applies for filmmakers and media, too. We have to use the privilege of a camera to actually bear witness to what’s going on in the world and not just stay at home watching CNN.
Can we expect this whole experience to show up in your work?
It’s impossible not to start processing it through work. I was writing and drawing even in prison because there wasn’t much else to do. The first thing I’m doing is a small book of prison drawings and stories. That feels really good to work on as a first step, though I can imagine eventually there will be something else. I’m not going to rush anything, but…
Sounds like there’s another prison movie in your future.
Something tells me.
St. Drogo’s Day.
Gaza. I’m gonna get there eventually!
Preferred swear word?
Chelsea Manning (currently serving 35 years).
Food you missed most in prison?
Bath or shower?
Desert island album?
Moses und Aaron by Arnold Schoenberg, Stuttgart State Opera Recording.
“In Conversation With…John Greyson” takes place on Jan. 12 at 3:30 p.m. as part of TIFF’s Canada’s Top Ten festival, tiff.net.