Alternately stilted and stunning (mostly the latter), Toronto-based filmmaker John Greyson’s “documentary opera,” “Fig Trees,” wraps an abbreviated history of AIDS medicine activism inside a dense, Peter Greenaway-esque system of associations to everything from “Philadelphia” and “The Matrix” to Gertrude Stein and Vanity Fair magazine. Admirably uncompromising, Greyson’s Teddy Award-winner for best docu at Berlin will delight those who like their nonfiction to be heady, avant-garde and political all at once, and is currently enjoying a healthy fest run. But its very strengths are liabilities in the commercial realm, where the film’s audaciously intellectual montage has virtually no place.
Like Greyson’s “Zero Patience” (1993), “Fig Trees” leavens its anger toward pharmaceutical companies with ironically upbeat music — including, in this case, mock-MTV clips from a fancifully concocted library of 100 “top AIDS songs.” Stein’s ’30s opera with Virgil Thomson, “Four Saints in Three Acts,” lies among the film’s primary touchstones, leading to witty talking-head analysis from theorist Wayne Koestenbaum and an ill-considered fictional narrative in which Stein kidnaps activists Tim McCaskell and Zackie Achmat, forcing them to sing in Niagara Falls. Tech credits, particularly the widescreen DV lensing, are extraordinary.