Chemsex: Orgies, "Tina" and devastating spirals
by Thomas Humphrey
- William Fairman and Max Gogarty speak to the hidden side of London's gay community on its own terms
In Britain (if not globally) it has become apparent in recent decades that people aren't really discussing HIV any more. As a disease it has retained its taboo quality and the emergence of new drugs seems to have allowed people to sweep it under the carpet. This is a cover up that also seems to double in strength when manifested in a gay scene that isn't necessarily always out and proud, and this is the issue that Chemsex [+see also:
film profile] boldly attempts to tackle.
Located in the Dare strand of the 59th London Film Festival, this UK production boldly fights to begin a discussion. Granted, it's a discussion that many people will not want to have, given that British gay culture shouldn't be tied to negative depictions of risky, casual sex as often as it perhaps is. But with their documentary, director-producers William Fairman and Max Gogarty vie to bring an epidemic to light: every day in London alone five gay men are diagnosed with HIV, and this is a rising trend that is often attributed to a burgeoning, underground sex culture.
It is this hidden world that both directors turn their investigative light onto, and for those unfamiliar with the scene, Chemsex will certainly be eye-opening. The film confronts you with a chain of full-frontal drug abuse and a flip book of blurry real sex shots from parties and clubs right across London, but it also unfurls the urban dictionary, pricking your ears to terms like "slamming," "Tina Turner" (crystal meth) and "G" (GBH). Collectively these glimpses give you a heady sense of how this subculture is self-defining itself, and it's very much a process we see that community using to distance its blend of sex and narcotics from the regular perceptions of drug addiction.
Nevertheless, the usual symptoms of substance abuse are all tragically apparent in this documentary. Told in mix of 16:10 and 1.25.1, our vision is always unflinchingly driven inwards towards these issues, and Chemsex takes on a real sense of the confessional. Repeatedly characters are interviewed in red-curtained rooms - sometimes anonymously, but always frankly - and whilst the interviewees all seem to have that secret glint in their eye of a man who has experienced unknown sexual heights, this is soon replaced by glistening, moistened eyes. One by one, almost every man seems to reveal his HIV status and the inner turmoil that lead him to chemsex, and it is these discussions which really do make Chemsex a vital conversation about the neglected issues of mental health in the gay scene (and in men more widely).
That said, Chemsex does toe a fine line between exposé and exploitation, and it will not be for the faint-hearted. Told from a variety of perspectives - from those who have survived to those who very much still gripped by drugs - you do sometimes worry. Chemsex is also very much a product of its Vice producers too, given the slick, stark, suave way it fills the screen, at times rather like a music videos. Though the documentary never loses its earnestness, and its dark stylisation often helps you feel better submerged in this complex scene, so Chemsex definitely represents a vital addition to distributor Peccadillo's mission to increase the number of LGBT issues that hit the big screen.