It’s hard to explain Fig Trees. It’s an opera yet it's also a documentary. There’s an albino squirrel and a nun. It scrutinizes the critical circumstances of the AIDS epidemic, from the 1980s to the present day, and points out, with sharp observations, the irony of consumer-driven AIDS campaigns. The main issues addressed are the ineffectiveness of governments and the greediness of pharmaceutical companies, but popular culture is not completely innocent either.
In Fig Trees, director John Greyson documents the story of South African AIDS activist, Zackie Achmat. Greyson portrays Achman as thoughtful, creative, and most of all, brave. He went on a treatment strike and refused to take his medication because he didn’t believe it was right that he could buy life while other, less affluent people couldn’t. This is where the opera, squirrel and nun come into play; they are a fragment of the visual puzzle Greyson creates.
The way in which all of the ingredients are put together to create such poignant commentary about HIV is interesting. Fig Trees is theatrical and complex—a bit too complex for my taste. For the most part, I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. Fig Trees is subtitled, but instead of making things easier to understand, it made them even more nonsensical. This was especially true when the screen was split into two, each side giving different sets of subtitles.
This doesn't mean that the film wasn't enjoyable. On the contrary, there were some “Aha!” moments that gave me great pleasure and other moments that made me think more deeply about the issues. This prompting of contemplation is always a good thing.