York professors’ film debuts today at the Out On Screen festival

While Canada is often touted as an accepting nation of great diversity, it was not always so.

Department of Film professors John Greyson and Ali Kazimi teamed up with Toronto-based filmmaker Richard Fung to co-direct Rex Vs. Singh, an experimental exploration of Vancouver history and human rights. This 30-minute video examines a 1915 trial where two Sikh mill-workers, Dalip Singh and Naina Singh, were entrapped by undercover police, accused of sodomy and sent to trial.

Right: The courtroom scene from Rex Vs. Singh, co-directed by York film professors John Greyson and Ali Kazimi

Rex Vs. Singh debuts today at Vancouver’s Out On Screen film festival (Aug. 14-24), which screens queer cinema from around the world. The film’s Toronto premiere is coming this October at The Spinning Wheel Film Festival, Toronto’s festival celebrating Sikh film.

The trial, held less than a year after the infamous Komagata Maru incident of 1914, when a ship carrying 376 migrants from British India was turned away, becomes a fascinating case study of Vancouver power relations: how police corruption, racism, homophobia and a covert "whites-only” immigration policy, conspired to maintain the status quo of this colonial port city.

The video stages scenes from the trial, told four times: first as a period drama, second as a documentary investigation of the case, third as a musical agit-prop, and fourth, identical to the first, but without actors.

Dues to its short length, Fung jokingly refers to Rex Vs. Singh as a “minibus film” instead of an omnibus film (a longer work which generally consists of several thematically linked short films). The directing team collaborated on the first segment and then each directed their own segment (Kazimi handled the documentary, Greyson the musical and Fung the final examination of the transcripts).

Commissioned by the Queer History Project (an initiative of the Out On Screen festival), this is the second in a series of creative partnerships that reveal Vancouver’s queer histories. The project’s goal is to create a lasting body of work that will enable those stories to take their rightful place in Canadian history.

Left and below: More scenes from Rex Vs. Singh, the film features three distinct segments which focus on different aspects of the trial

The Queer History Project approached Greyson first about the commission. In searching for a subject, Greyson read an intriguing essay by Vancouver’s Gordon Brant Ingram, a social historian and environmental planner. Ingram stumbled upon the dossier that contains the Rex Vs. Singh court transcripts when researching the development of Canada’s gross indecency laws. Ingram is interviewed by Kazimi in the documentary section of the video.

Greyson approached Kazimi and Fung as collaborators based on their respective filmographies which closely intersected with what he wanted to accomplish with Rex Vs. Singh. When Greyson pitched the idea to the organization they were sold.

The challenge of representing history on film was one of the central discussions among the filmmakers. The transcripts are the only information about Dalip Singh and Naina Singh that exist. The film makers hope that the film will not only raise questions about that trial and the social structure at that time, but also about the nature of constructing history on film.

“Reading the transcripts is quite shocking to our romanticized ideas about Edwardian civilities,” said Kazimi. “The language is very graphic in describing sexual acts with liberal use of four letter words.”

“While I uncovered a great deal of lost information about South Asians in Canada in the early 20th-century when researching Continuous Journey, the info we learned about systemic police targeting of Sikhs and gay sex was totally new to me.”

Kazimi’s award-winning documentary Continuous Journey (2004) was the first in-depth film looking at the events around the Komagata Maru incident. It investigates early 20th-century Canadian exclusion laws that were designed to keep out immigrants of Asian origin and challenges audiences to reflect on the past and present ramifications of those policies. Kazimi has been active in the national dialogue around Komagata Maru ever since, often approached by national media to bring his perspective to the discussion.

Komagata Maru was a symptom of a much larger underlying exclusionary policy that existed for decades that, for all of the federal government’s apologies over specific incidents, has never been addressed,” said Kazimi. “An apology offers catharsis and closure for the symptom. I advocate the opposite. Let’s examine how that ‘whites-only’ policy shaped our nation. That is the framework we, and our schools, must examine Canadian history in.”