Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Film traces meth's destructive power


Filmmaker Todd Ahlberg.
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In his latest project, now making its way around the gay film fest circuit, San Francisco filmmaker Todd Ahlberg explores the increasing use of crystal meth in the gay community by weaving together the reflections of a dozen diverse gay men from across the U.S. who are both current and past users of the drug.

The men candidly discuss the drug's promise of confidence, connectivity and sexual prowess, but also how its seductive hold eventually destroys users. Ahlberg said he was drawn to the project after noticing over the past decade a shift from a feeling of gay solidarity to instead one of a general malaise and a new crop of HIV infection rates, which he blames on the resurgence of speed in the gay community.

"The community as a whole was getting almost stoney, glazed-over. There was almost an automaton sort of feel," he said. "It just wasn't fun."

As part of the Positive Force/PLUS event series at the LGBT Community Center, Ahlberg will screen the new film, METH - The Movie , which he both produced and directed, Tuesday, February 28. A socially conscious moviemaker, the 42-year-old San Francisco native initially achieved notoriety with the 2002 docu-film Hooked , about online cruising, and the 2005 short, The Morning After, a public service announcement for the "HIV is Still a Big Deal" campaign. Ahlberg, who admits to his own speed experimentation, has lost several friends to the drug.

"I tried it twice," he said. "I also had friends become distant and unreliable, and then their phones were disconnected. It's always been in the back of my head, as one of the gay social issues I should explore."

He finds the meth epidemic especially troubling now when the conservative right has become better organized in its venomous attacks against gays.

"Meth is silencing us and causing us to be apathetic," he said. "Now, more than ever, we need to be sticking up for ourselves during our current administration. But looking at the whole crystal meth culture within the gay culture makes me worried that we're losing ground, and we can't afford to."

When word spread about the project, 500-plus men expressed interest, and Ahlberg narrowed them down to a dozen. Of the men selected, the film focuses primarily on Andrew MacGregor, an admitted drug dealer and user from Phoenix, Arizona. His story unfolds as the other men in the film reflect on their own drug experiences. As they tell their tales, the film cuts back to MacGregor, who represents in real time what they describe.

"In hindsight, they can reflect more philosophically," he said. "But Andrew is unattached from recognizing the craziness in his life. He's a regular user, so there is lots of drama, anonymous sex, confusion, and sinking lower and lower. There is also the HIV correlative, where the guys who seroconverted by being on crystal explain the moment."

Although Ahlberg hopes to warn against the ills of speed, he also structures the film to convey the drug's allure.

"We have to recognize that Tina is a seductress," he said, using a common nickname for meth. "The ark of the story is understanding how fun and amazing and freeing it can feel, but then users reach a peak, where the drug turns on them, runs the show and things get sketchy. You either disappear, die, lose your mind or start to pull out."

Fortunately, rehabilitation becomes the light at the end of the tunnel for many of the interviewees.  

"We hear a lot about guys going through recovery, and they reflect on that and where they are today," he said. "It has a lot of hope, whether you're dealing with crystal meth or know someone who is. It is something you can break away from with no small amount of work."

With this in mind, Ahlberg is confident that at least some audience members will walk away deterred from even trying the drug.  

"Hopefully, the film will help people talk about it as something you do not want to try," he said. "It is not worth it, and these guys' stories get that across."

The film recently premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival to sell-out crowds and will play at film festivals in Miami, London, Provincetown and San Francisco. It is also being considered for television distribution.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention and Control section, Castrobear Presents, Access SF, the Stop AIDS Project, the Gay Men's Community Initiative and the LGBT Community Center are sponsoring Thursday night's program.

"A few years ago, we identified meth amphetamines as a significant driver of syphilis and new HIV infection in San Francisco, so it is critical for us to support increased awareness of the problem and mobilize the community to address the issue of crystal meth," said Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, the city's STD prevention director. "This film makes an important statement in that regard."

Ahlberg hopes the film's impact is felt far beyond San Francisco.  

"The religious and administrative right look at us, and it's their dream come true, that the gay community is killing itself in the most immoral way possible to them. So the [federal] government is not doing anything," he said. "But why should they? [Because] there are enough people doing it, where they can't ignore it anymore."

"Meth - A Sneak Preview," a Positive Force/PLUS program and benefit for the Stop Aids Project and the LGBT Community Center, takes place from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, February 28 at the center, 1800 Market Street at Octavia. A Q&A with filmmaker Todd Ahlberg will follow the screening. The event is free, but donations are encouraged.

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