Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar
Illustration by Kirsty Kennedy
I came across John Greyson’s 1993 film Zero Patience: A Musical About AIDS in the first semester of my Queer History masters. I wanted to learn new approaches to public history with the aim of making LGBTQIA+ history and queer politics more visible. The film explored problems I was coming up against in my own practice as a historian, especially questions I began to form about how (and if) my work in institutions could relate to my activism. I think it is important watching for anyone involved in the field of history and museum studies.
The film opens with the statement that “in 1987, newspapers around the world accused a Canadian flight attendant of bringing AIDS to North America. They called him Patient Zero [sic]” (Greyson) then cuts to a classroom of children reading copies of Richard Francis Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights. The opening titles finish, and we are now in a museum of natural history in Toronto sometime in the early 1990s, where a voiceover informs us that: “it’s not widely known that Victorian sexologist and explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton is still alive” (Greyson). It transpires that Burton is working as the Chief Taxidermist in the museum. He is building a new project he calls “The Hall of Contagion” – assisted financially by the fictional pharmaceutical company Gilbert & Sullivan – and he needs more AIDS content. The film then moves from the concrete to “somewhere between existential limbo and the primordial void” (Greyson) – a surreal montage of choreography and abstract visuals sitting somewhere between a Jean Cocteau ballet and a Soft Cell music video. An anonymous man, soon to be revealed as “Zero,” the above-mentioned flight attendant, sings to us “tell the story, clear my name [. . .] tell the tale, save my life” (Greyson) before materialising in a gay bathhouse.
This rollercoaster of an opening immediately challenges any singular approach to telling Zero’s story. The documentary elements of the narration are at odds with the highly stylised musical numbers that overlap them. Furthermore, the surprise twist that Richard Burton is in fact alive and well changes the historical narrative. What we thought we knew to be true is no longer a given in this context. We move between fiction and fact.
In addition to this, the different locations featured in the opening sequence: classroom, museum, bathhouse, and an indefinite in-between, explore the different ways in which knowledge is produced and disseminated, providing a counter to the traditional, imperialist framework of Burton’s museum. The historical Burton had a complex relationship with British colonialism, being critical of it in many of his works and letters whilst still complicit in the construction of imperial knowledge and power in his translations, expeditions, and anthropological work. Armed with a camera and a colonial gaze, Burton constantly tries to penetrate and possess, invasively filming clips of Zero’s friends and loved ones for a museum documentary in which he attempts to demonise Patient Zero. When the people he interviews refuse to co-operate, he simply cuts together the footage he has taken to serve his own ends. He is presented as a ridiculous figure, self-interested, conniving, and unwilling to listen to the very people whose histories he claims to represent. As a real historical figure, Burton’s sexual proclivities have been up for debate, but the film immediately demonstrates that any attempt to rehabilitate him into the Queer Canon needs to meaningfully engage with his complicity in a wider imperial project (Aldrich 9).
Burton’s questionable mission is situated within the wider narrative of the rest of the film, which takes us to yet another location: meetings of Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a seminal queer activist group organising against HIV/AIDS. The film homes in on the lives of diverse ACT UP members, and Zero’s friends and relatives – allowing each of them to narrate their personal experiences of AIDS. ACT UP hotly debate whether to get involved in an exhibition funded by Gilbert & Sullivan, whose ruthless pursuit of profit through setting impossibly high prices for AIDS medication is literally killing members of the group. The group’s final action is to protest the exhibition by breaking into the museum by setting up new models and interpretations, in some cases literally writing over how their history is represented. The film suggests that the most effective way these changes occur is through direct political action rather than trying to cooperate with an institution which will eventually rule out even more sanitised attempts at rehabilitation at board level, as occurs in Zero Patience.
Furthermore, Greyson’s use of music introduces play and possibility into history-making. The song “Miss AIDS” utilises a dreamlike old-Hollywood Busby Berkeley-style synchronised swimming number to explain the epidemiology of AIDS: exploring how the disease is spread between people. “Butthole Duet” and “Pop a Boner” allow a playful sexuality to emerge in the film. The film extends beyond the normative confines of Burton’s institution, defying genre and creating space for multiple diverse voices to emerge. It ridicules notions of hierarchy and legitimacy which are often attached to institutions like museums. Later in the film, Zero is presented with an alternative institutional narrative that for the first time, valourises, rather than demonises him. He responds: “this is just another of your lies” (Greyson). The spaces Zero wants to be remembered in are the tender gaps: “a photo on my mum’s fridge, a slide in George’s window” (Greyson). There is little space in the institutional narratives for the complex emotional present of mourning, loss, and trauma that the AIDS crisis still holds (Schulman 14). This is even true of recuperation narratives. Sarah Schulman and Douglas Crimp are both concerned that our collective historicization of the AIDS crisis has led to indifference towards AIDS and disenfranchisement and forgetting of its victims (Schulman 14; Crimp 5). Does institutionalising these narratives by having them in museums, galleries, and university collections depoliticise them? How do we mobilise, and can we mobilise, to avoid this? I don’t claim to have the answers to any of the questions I have touched on here, however I do think including this film in critical theory modules for literature and history would begin to complicate assumptions about how queer and marginalised histories can be told, and the emotional and political considerations we need to make when doing this.
Aldrich, Robert. Colonialism and Homosexuality. London, Routledge, 2003.
Crimp, Douglas. “Right On, Girlfriend!” Social Text, 33, 1992, 2-18.
Schulman, Sarah. The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to A Lost Imagination. Berkeley,
University of California Press, 2013.Zero Patience: A Musical About AIDS. Directed by John Greyson, Strand Releasing, 1993.