The latest documentary funded by Vice Films, Chemsex proficiently explores the UK queer scene’s party and play subculture, interrogating a vast array of recreational drug users who rely on the use of substances like mephedrone, GHB, and (most prominently) methamphetamine to augment their casual sexual encounters. Coming from previous Vice collaborator William Fairman (cinematographer on Reincarnated) and Skins minisode director Max Gogarty, Chemsex‘s major strength is in its explicit, no-holds-barred portrayal of a subject that is all too regularly swept under the rug, however its somewhat conventional structure (especially in its final, cliched moments) prevents it from reaching the heights of other recent documentaries with a queer focus such as Desert Migration.
Following a sizeable sample of queer men over the course of a year as they take drugs and engage in (often unprotected) sex with strangers, Chemsex lifts the lid on the dangerous, but often aestheticized and romanticized world of sexualized recreational drug use, exploring the formation, facilitation and practices of the underground community. While Fairman and Gogarty’s findings are often shocking, and almost always confronting, the duo’s feigned objectivity rings somewhat hollow as the film progresses, spending a fair portion of the feature pointing the finger (perhaps fairly) at contemporary hook-up apps and a bit too much time with NHS employee David Stuart, operator of 56 Dean Street (the UK’s most revolutionary sexual health clinic) – an expert, not a user. Too much time spent verbally outlining the dangers of party and play practices, rather than visually exposing us to the reality of the situation sees the documentary veering dangerously close to a PSA format, despite its true strength – as with most Vice content – lying in expose. In saying that, none of the creative choices feel ethically dubious, with this particular decision a conscious effort to actively advocate harm reduction, an overall worthwhile endeavor on behalf of Fairman, Gogarty and Stuart.
To label this a simple PSA would also be completely disingenuous; a fair portion of what’s here is exactly what we’ve come to expect from Vice’s edgy frontlines brand of youth journalism, the sort of film that should be funded by a company which started off as a punk zine, before cementing themselves as the group to take on the global underbelly of edgy topics that no major publication in its right mind would poke a stick at. It’s a raw documentary with explicit footage of intravenous drug use and intense sexual encounters that never shies away from its content and definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. Vice Films, a Vice Media branch which saw its existence solidified in 2014 after entering a co-venture with Fox, already has a number of other films under its belt including Reincarnated, White Lightenin’, and the Australian documentary All This Mayhem. Chemsex is not an outlier in the production companies filmography, showcasing some of the most harrowing and confronting moments cased in a documentary format in recent memory (much like All This Mayhem before it) but never drawing attention to this fact a la Only The Dead. From statistics that demonstrate an increase in the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases over the past decade, to self-shot footage of drugged out orgies that are anything but representative of the glamorous descriptions made by regular drug abusers, to a scene in which an HIV-denier confronts the fact that he might have actually contracted the disease, it may be killing him, and he may be responsible for spreading it to others through his denial of its existence, Chemsex packs an overwhelming amount of material should be enough to confront even the most skeptical of audience members into its brief 70 minute runtime.
These pure, terrifying moments are enough to negate the majority of the film’s faults, although the two divergent streams of Fairman and Gogarty’s objective and subjective coverage constantly butt heads here, it’s largest misstep in its conclusion as the duo lay their cards bare, wrapping everything up in a nice PSA-addled bow. While their topic is definitely worthy of critique – one that needs to be addressed by the broader who’d like to think drug dependency sits far more left of the mainstream – casing such a nuanced collection of case studies into a format generally used to push alarmist, moral panic-based agendas cheapens its shocking content and is unnecessary in the context of Chemsex, a film that proficiently gets its point across without the need to hammer it home in its final moments. The way in which Vice’s output pushes against the norm generally extends into the structure of their documentary outings, so it’s a shame that one of their first major festival releases relies so heavily on reinforcing the status-quo in this mode of film-making, an act that is ultimately to the films detriment as one begins to wonder if the production has been, in part, co-funded by the NHS.
In spite of this, the majority of Chemsex stands strong on its own legs, a surprisingly sturdy and nuanced exploration of a dangerous, drug-fueled underground sex culture that has increasingly been infiltrating mainstream culture through the wide uptake of hook-up apps. Importantly for Vice Films (and festival-goers alike), the documentary more than justifies its feature length, functioning as much more than just an extended version of Vice’s traditional 10-30 minute web-doco outings. Chemsex clearly demonstrates that Vice have an important role to play in the funding of contemporary documentary projects, especially ones with a social agenda, and that their transmission onto the big screen is warranted when tackling issues too expansive to constrain to a YouTube clip format. Additionally, Chemsex ultimately fits the Vice mandate perfectly: edgy, confronting, informative, well-constructed, and with its finger placed firmly on the pulse. While the content isn’t exactly enjoyable, it’s hard to think anybody will walk away without something substantial to think about.