A new documentary about gay men, meth, and HIV
Positively Aware Editor Jeff Berry
Jeff Berry @paeditor

‘It’s very difficult to recover in a vacuum without the help of a supportive social network,’ says the director-producer of a new documentary about gay men, meth, and HIV

From the top: Kristian, Jimmie, and Rob recount their experiences.

In the trailer for the new feature-length documentary film Crystal City, Rob, who is living with HIV and four years sober, says that during his time dealing and using crystal methamphetamine he discovered “there are addicts everywhere, from people living on the street to business executives of major entertainment companies—from the gutter to the penthouse.”

New York City, which is experiencing a 300–400% surge of crystal meth use, is the backdrop for this gritty, graphic, but ultimately inspiring and hopeful film infused with heart and compassion. It follows 12 gay men over the course of one year, some actively using, others in recovery. (A word of warning: some of the scenes of people smoking and injecting crystal meth may be difficult to watch.)

David Fawcett, author of Lust, Men, and Meth: A Gay Man’s Guide to Sex and Recovery, is interviewed throughout the film, and is also one of the film’s producers. Crystal City is filled with bits of information about things like the origins of crystal meth in the U.S. (known as “mother’s little helper” to housewives during the 1950s) and high-quality animations depicting the science behind the drug, such as how it can alter the dopamine receptors in the brain with continued use.

The power of crystal meth overtakes most users with consistent use, the movie tells us. 10,721 people died from overdoses in the U.S. last year. It’s estimated that 50% of gay men who are using crystal meth will seroconvert, acquiring HIV and other infections such as HCV.

“A small percentage of addicts do seek recovery,” says Fawcett. “For them, quitting the drug is just the beginning of their journey.” Ninety percent of those in recovery will relapse at least once, we are told.

The hope and inspiration of Crystal City springs from the men who are followed in the film through various stages of recovery and use. “One of the things about getting sober is that you have people you can talk to,” says one individual, “and before, I didn’t have that.” In an almost ironic twist of fate, the community that people discover in recovery is the connection they were initially seeking when they started using in the first place. “I’m damaged goods,” says Rob. “No one’s going to want me—I’m untouchable.” Crystal meth offers users an exit door, freedom, oblivion, and makes everyone weirdly equal, says another.

It’s not just a gay issue, says Fawcett, it’s a problem for our whole society, and something we need to begin to think about to address. “The first step is to see what we have in common with a crystal meth user, instead of, ‘oh, that’s not me, not my problem, it could never be me, why don’t they just get it together.’”

Fawcett encourages us to ask ourselves, “What are the similarities here, what are the vulnerabilities I might share that I see in that other person, and what solutions have they discovered that might be relevant to me?”

The film, which has been making the film festival circuit over the spring and summer and winning awards, will be available on iTunes and Amazon on September 10. POSITIVELY AWARE asked the film’s director, producer and editor Terrence Crawford, director of Formerly Productions LLC, what his motivation was for making the film and what he hopes it will accomplish.

What inspired you to make this film?

Crystal City began as a 20-minute long student film for Sam Pollard’s documentary production class [at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts]. At the time, it was called Crystal Clear. Ultimately, we scrapped and reshot all of the footage when producing the feature, but the basic premise remained the same. Two of the original characters in that short version appear in the 90-minute iteration. 

I was inspired to create Crystal City in part because of the persistence of John Maidman, the film’s cinematographer and producer. After watching my short film, he believed that he could help provide the resources and cinematographic talent necessary to produce a feature-length documentary on recovery from crystal meth addiction in NYC’s gay community. 

I personally have been in recovery from crystal meth addiction since early 2015 and share much of the same history as my documentary subjects. Sobriety and the 12-step model of recovery has dramatically improved my life for the better ever since. However, for years, I was embarrassed to share my experience in recovery even with friends and family. 

This is because crystal meth addiction is a largely taboo subject in conversation and it can be difficult for recovering addicts to be open about their history with loved ones. In part, lack of representation in film and television plays a major role in the stigma associated with meth addiction. Most other documentaries and scripted films about addiction focus primarily on the tragedy and despair of active using without offering solutions or hope. 

I wanted to make a documentary that reduces this stigma by representing a group of crystal meth addicts as talented, resourceful, and intelligent people in recovery capable of long-term sobriety and life improvement. My intention is for the general public to relate to these recovering crystal meth addicts, not to pity them as hopeless cases. Crystal City is primarily a call to compassion. 

What do you hope people will take away from the film?

I want audiences to leave the theater with a fresh perspective on people in recovery. I hope the audience remembers that crystal meth has been around for over a century—used by heads of state, combat soldiers in World War II, 1950s housewives, and finally by LGBTQ communities. Audience members should understand that methamphetamine releases four times as much dopamine as cocaine and six times as much as sex. So much dopamine is released, in fact, that nearly everyone who repeatedly uses methamphetamine is at risk of becoming dependent, regardless of predisposition. After all, meth addiction impacts people from all walks of life, gay and straight, from the gutter to the penthouse. Hopefully our audience will relate to these documentary subjects and recognize that addicts in their own lives are capable of success and redemption. 

Anything else you would like to add?

I hope viewers aren’t turned off by the heavy subject matter and will give the film a chance. The overall arc of the story is about redemption with a hopeful, uplifting tone. Also—while this isn’t explicitly covered in the film, harm reduction treatment modalities such as GMHC’s “Recharge” program [in New York City] are receiving the most resources and funding from the city and department of health. The film isn’t opposed to harm reduction because 12-step programs and therapy aren’t necessarily a good fit for every addict. Abstinence should be the ultimate goal in my opinion, but it’s best to meet each person where they are at in their recovery and not to shame them if they are unable to maintain sobriety. As stated in the film, the most effective treatment options tend to involve some sort of community and peer support. It’s very difficult to recover in a vacuum without the help of a supportive social network.

Watch the Crystal City trailer: vimeo.com/313886794.

Available to stream or purchase on iTunes and Amazon on Sept. 10.