Five gay men are diagnosed with HIV/AIDS every day in London. Five – every single day – in one city. This community is going through the biggest health crisis it has faced in thirty years which seems to have its genesis in a new high-risk subculture which has emerged into the gay world, colloquially known as ‘Chemsex’.
Cocktails of illicit drugs are injected alongside promiscuous multi-partner unprotected sex, a dangerous combination that is becoming the norm in some circles. Documentary makers William Fairman and Max Gogarty bring this world to the screen in excruciating detail in the new VICE documentary, exploring this strange and frightening subculture with a vérité like realism. Think Requiem for a Dream crossed with Shame but made all the more depressing because of the fact that it’s happening right now to real people. This is a truly uncomfortable watch but it’s also a bleakly fascinating glimpse into this new and dangerous scene.
Face to face interviews give us a glimpse into this strange world. Most of these are incredibly moving accounts of this fringe which seems to be getting both easier and worse due to the rise in technology ; apps like Grindr and porn sites let those willing to participate find like-minded people almost instantly. What used to be extreme is becoming the norm and the push towards new even more worrying limits is creating a scene which is destroying lives. The shocking thing is that in extreme circles being HIV-positive is almost welcomed. Because it has become medically manageable in the last few years the threat of it has been almost normalized; a disease which tears apart the body’s ability to heal itself is considered a perfectly acceptable by-product.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope. ’56 Dean Street’ is a London based clinic and the main health worker David Stuart provides one of the talking head interviews. There is a system in place so that young men can hopefully break the vicious cycle of drugs and dangerous sex which is creating a health crisis.
The quality that distinguishes Chemsex is the extent of what it decides to show. There are seemingly endless shots of needles going into people’s arms, and it pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to showing the wild sexual abandon that happens at Chemsex parties. This isn’t a horror film but upon leaving the cinema there’s the same harrowing sense of hopelessness that usually tails one.
Ultimately Chemsex is a stark and very sobering account of what it is like taking part in one of the most extreme subcultures imaginable. Importantly it never condemns those willing to share their story; instead it demonstrates the terrible sadness that this lifestyle leaves in its wake. While not being an enjoyable watch by any standard this is still a valuable piece of documentary filmmaking. It is a dangerous issue which deserves awareness.
Proceed with caution – This isn’t for the faint of heart.
Chemsex is screening exclusively from 15th April at Cinema Nova for a limited season.