Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"Fairman and Gogarty try to give a sense of the appeal of this hedonistic abandonment, while simultaneously showing how deeply saddening and traumatic much of the activity is." | Photo: Courtesy of London Film Festival

We all know about the visible battles that the LGBT communities have faced - those hard-fought-for equalities such as an end to discrimination, legal protection and marriage rights.

Now William Fairman and Max Gogarty's documentary thrusts a hidden fight within the male gay community into the light - the 'chemsex' of the title, one of many euphemisms the film seeks to examine. It refers to an extreme form of, to use another euphemism, partying practised by increasing numbers of gay men in which they get high on drugs before embarking on risky - if at the time euphoric - sex, often with complete strangers they've 'connected' with on social media apps such as Grindr, or multiple partners in what amounts to pre-arranged orgies.

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Mixing footage of parties and drug taking with candid interviews with some of the men who are still part of the scene, and many who are trying or have succeeded in leaving it, Fairman and Gogarty try to give a sense of the appeal of this hedonistic abandonment, while simultaneously showing how deeply saddening and traumatic much of the activity is, if not in the heat of the ecstatic moment then most certainly in the medium term. There is sharp contrast in the footage of the men between their perception while under the influence and our knowledge that they look at best wired, often bewildered and frequently paranoid and traumatised.

The influence of drugs such as GBL/GHB, crystal meth and Mephedrone is less to do with physical addiction than the psychological hook it acquires when it becomes linked to sex in the minds of youngsters who are often vulnerable when they first arrive on the scene. One of the most worrying aspects of this documentary is the way some of the men talk about how they were forced to use the drugs the first time, often revealed in a way that makes it sound like a rite of passage rather than sexual abuse. Equally, there is a suggestion that many of these men who choose to sleep around feel - at least before the event - that they would rather "get pozzed up" and have HIV than live in fear of catching it. As one interviewee puts, he feels it is "an extreme form of sadism" and "masochism".

The linguistics around chemsex put a soft spin on what is going on - for example "point" or "pin" instead of "needle". and "slamming" instead of "shooting up" - and its clear that one or two of the interviewees haven't really considered the addiction aspect at all until quizzed on it. This is not really about the physical needs of these men but the psychological ones, an avenue best explored by health worker David Stuart. He works at 56 Dean Street in London, which the films says is, remarkably, the only clinic in the UK that tackles substance abuse and sexual health at the same time. Stuart has real-life experience of drugs and HIV and the film shows how he and others within the gay community are trying to tackle this problem before it costs more men their lives. It also shows how complex and involved the drivers towards chemsex are - this is most certainly not something that can be boiled down to 'a bullied childhood' or 'bad home life'.

This is not an easy watch. There is footage of gay sex, used sparingly, but with few holds-barred and those who faint at the sight of needles will do well to steer clear. The filmmaking itself is solid. The directors deserve a lot of credit for the even-handed approach they take and for the huge amount of effort it must have taken to win over the confidence of those who are willing to speak out here, particularly as chemsex is still a fundamental part of many of their lives. They could have made their point just as well with one less orgy segment, however, and the use of slow motion over parts of the section concerning Stuart - presumably to emphasise how lovely and reliable he is - are unecessary, just seeing him talk sympathetically to someone hoping to quit the drug/sex cycle tells us this and more. Daniel Harle's scoring is also overdone. Its early portentousness recalls those dreadful 'don't die of ignorance' AIDS adverts from the mid-80s, while later it strays into odd ambient territory, involving annoying bleeps that detract from the person speaking.

It's the people who are speaking which are the thing here, however. Their testimony is haunting and often heartbreaking but, by talking about chemsex and raising awareness of the full picture and the alternatives, it also offers hope.

More information about 56 Dean Street and Chemsex support can be found here.

Reviewed on: 03 Dec 2015
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Documentary about the chemsex sub-scene in London’s gay community.
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Director: William Fairman, Max Gogarty

Year: 2015

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: UK


London 2015

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