"The war on bikes must end! The war on bikes must end!"
So chant a group of cyclists holding a service for dead courier Mars Brito (Chase Joynt) in John Greyson's Murder In Passing. A serial murder-mystery in 42 parts, Greyson's film is currently unfolding in thirty second snatches across the TTC, occupying the in-station screens once every ten minutes, and available online for anyone who missed a chapter.
Given the constraints of the medium - and yes, Murder In Passing insists (however implicitly), TTC info screens are a medium - the cyclists' funerary gathering is by necessity a silent vigil. It's just one of the many elements of Greyson's film, now in its 13th installment, that makes efficient use of its medium-specificity.
"It was a very strange exercise to begin writing," says Greyson of the project, which began airing January 7. "I'd just come off of writing and shooting a crazy opera-documentary feature. My mindset was very much in long-form storytelling. So to switch to these stories that have the arc of a car commercial, it's crazy. But in a funny way, you just get inside the needs and the logistics of the form, and just take it on."
So far, Murder In Passing follows a bike-riding detective (Alexander Chapman) tracking down suspects in Brito's death, against the backdrop of the fictional Passing, BC. As a setting, the made-up locale's punning name signifies much of Murder In Passing's economy of wit.
Passing is really Toronto, "passing" (as Toronto often does in film and TV) as somewhere else. And the dead courier is a trans-man whose life was built in no small part around the idea of "passing." If that's not enough, Murder In Passing sees Chapman (a genetic male) passing as a female detective. And - given its themes and the tie-in elements in the daily Metro paper and on the film's YouTube channel and Twitter account - Greyson's film is itself a conceptual pun on the idea of "transmedia."
"The focus from the start was to write a murder mystery about trans and transit issues," says Greyson. "Really subtle, you know?"
Maybe not on paper. But the un-subtlety underlines the urgency of the material, which concerns itself with more than just cyclists' rights and the "war on bikes." Despite the resonances a story about a dead bike courier would generate in the Toronto market, Greyson aimed to deflect any sort of direct, one-to-one allegory.
"It's not set in Toronto, purposefully," he says. "There are echoes and references to stories that have happened across North America: the killing by SUV of transwoman Erica Keel in the south; the killing of Chris Skinner by SUV, who was a gay man."
Greyson's no stranger to controversial material. The 52-year old Toronto filmmaker made his name with 1993's Zero Patience, which treated the urban legend of HIV's "Patient Zero" as a mythic musical. More recently, he made headlines in September 2009 when he yanked his short documentary, Covered, from TIFF in protest of the festival's City to City Spotlight on Tel Aviv. But positioning a cycling/trans advocacy neo-noir smack on TTC screens, where anyone's liable to be provoked (or affected) by it, is a whole new kind of daring.
The idea started with Sharon Switzer, a member of the Art For Commuters (A4C) collective, who has been responsible for introducing public art to the Pattison Onestop-owned TTC screens since 2007. She began with photos and video projects tied in with events like the Contact Photography Festival, TUFF (the Toronto Urban Film Festival) and Nuit Blance. But Murder In Passing, she says, "is for sure the most ambitious project."
"These kinds of screens are taking over our landscapes," says Switzer. "And of we don't stop and think about what kind of cultural content is on them, it's just going to be all this corporate branding."
Greyson's film couldn't feel less corporate. While not as blatantly incendiary, or formally experimental, as some of his other films, Murder In Passing's lensing of trans issues feels like a necessary social intervention. After all, it was just over a week ago that The Observer's Julie Burchill got away with publishing a narrow-minded, highly distasteful takedown of the "trans lobby," which had her (among sundry other disgraces) referring to transwomen as "a bunch of dicks in chicks' clothing." (The paper withdrew the piece, "in light of the hurt and offence caused," according to editor John Mulholland. You can still read it here.)
"Despite the best efforts of [transpeople like] Chaz Bono and Lana Wachowski, we're still in an environment of extreme bigotry, transphobia and violence," says Greyson.
"What better medium for exploring this than the murder-mystery, which has always been a vehicle for outsiders?"