Film review by Maysa Moncao and Jason Day of the documentary filmed in basements, bedrooms and bars across London about the use of intravenous drugs by gay men to fuel sex parties, looking the men who indulge in this practice and have made it out alive and one health worker who has made it his mission to save them.
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Directors: William Fairman, Max Gogarty.
Cast & credits
Producers: William Fairman, Max Gogarty.
Camera: William Fairman.
Music: Daniel Harle.
In hidden basements, bedrooms and bars across London, “Chemsex” is a documentary that exposes frankly and intimately a dark side to modern gay life. Traversing an underworld of intravenous drug use and weekend-long sex parties, “Chemsex” tells the story of several men struggling to make it out of ‘the scene’ alive – and one health worker who has made it his mission to save them. While society looks the other way, this powerful and unflinching film uncovers a group of men battling with HIV, drug addiction and finding acceptance in a changing world.
Review, by Maysa Moncao
In 1985 I was a teenager and naturally curious about sex, loosing virginity and drugs as well. We had some sort of sexual education in a Protestant school in Brazil, and I remember my teacher talking about safe sex and Aids. My first sexual experiences came under the stigma of “danger”, rather than “pleasure”. Rock Hudson never came out publically, but he died as a HIV positive. Soon, one of the rock stars of my generation in Brazil would suffer the hostilities of being bisexual and HiV positive. Cazuza, as he was known, would show me life could be very short if you are happily reckless. He died five years later, at the age of 32.
Now I am introduced to the documentary Chemsex, by Will Fairman and Max Gogarty, that explores the lives and fortunes of a group of gay men actually taking part in chemsex lifestyle. “Chemsex” is the association of 3 different drugs (crystal meth or methamphetamine, meph or mephedrone and GHB or GBL), in any combination, to facilitate or enhance sex.
My first reaction to it was “My God. This is the post-Aids epidemia generation”. But then I realised it is not an issue of “generation”. It is more complicated than just promiscuity and being careless, or belonging to risk group. It has to do with shame, cycles of self-destruction and redemption. So, basically, it is all around us. Better saying, It is part of us all, it is within us, or haven’t you ever felt depressed?
Chemsex goes deep into London hidden gay life and explores complex issues and characters. It also shows a way out, via a NGO based in the heart of Soho. Probably the work of 56 Dean Street is the light of this documentary. By revealing the dark phases of some characters, and how they put themselves together with professional help, the film is an alert of a considerable part of British society we are daily neglecting. Is London the best place in the world to be gay?
One of the testimonies caught by the lenses concludes that those people are looking for something that enables communication. London seems to be the place where no shouts are allowed and that every “diversity” has the right to express freely, but at the same time few are paying attention to their individual voices. Maybe this is why some of them choose drugs to enable communication.
Filmed over a year, including scenes with no “filter” to self-cruelty, the doc aims to be a bridge between those who deliberately are taking a walk on the wild side and us, Londoners. December 1st is the World Aids Day. It is clear that 30 years after Rock Hudson’s death we need more awareness than ever before. Chemsex will be released in UK in December 4th.
Review, by Jason Day
Oddly (or, perhaps, fittingly?) sobering is the best word to describe what, as a gay man myself, I found an almost terrifying film to sit through.
There is no blood-letting, no violence (except that which is self-inflicted), no murders, only consensual acts being seen and described yet still it sent a chill down my spine to hear gay men stating they were “lucky to get out alive” of a culture where sex and narcotics intake are intertwined, the two helixes of queer DNA it seems.
“I have four ‘slams’ (injections of drugs as a precursor to sex) a day…and can spend £400 a week on drugs” is the astonishingly honest opening description by one man of his drug use. Why was I astonished? Perhaps not so much by the admission, but by the man casually ‘slamming’ right then and there in front of the filmmakers.
There are more cavalier admissions and acts peppered throughout, including some remarkable administration of a sex party, in which the host has put the names and online ‘handles’ of his guests into an excel spreadsheet, complete with the times when each individual will have their next ‘slam’ plotted on it.
I do fear for ‘my boys’. In the past, I have seen friends descend into the seductive welcome and warmth of addiction all too easily (one admitted he took drugs at work, carefully taking each new ‘slam’ on the hour every hour in carefully measured doses so as to avoid overdose or being too high on duty).
It’s not eye-opening for me to hear people’s justifications and excuses for drug usage; old hat stories of the past are retold here in less amusing tones, but there is extra clarity about the psychological and artistic motivations, namely a photographer who has experienced direction for his work whilst under the influence of Crystal compared to being sober (and it clearly benefited him as we are told at the end he has staged an exhibition of his work).
A criticism then: if the film is to be used to help turn gay men’s perceptions of their drug use around, is there too much glorifying of the effects of ‘slamming’? The tone is fittingly grim and/or seedy throughout, but although there are plenty of interviewees who opine the positives of drugs is one positive comment about drug taking a comment too far?
This does offer balance to the viewpoints I guess, but perhaps what is needed later in the film is an even stronger focus on people successfully changing their lives around and how they did this (we follow a young man seeking help for his drug use but who falls off the wagon with unfortunate predictability).
Perhaps the filmmakers are afraid of sugaring the pill, but after the first hour or so of ‘slamming’, then a comedown, I needed a restorative.
Overall though, this is an important public health film that should be required viewing for all young gay men and absolutely for any in the capital.
See the official trailer on Youtube.