At the end of March, the Cleveland International Film Festival will host the world premiere of Crystal City, a highly polished documentary by 27-year-old New York filmmaker and recovering meth addict Terrence Crawford about how the drug has ravaged gay male communities in New York City -- but how certain gay men are forging new lives after meth via 12-step programs and therapy.
The documentary, which will then screen April 1 at Wicked Queer, the Boston LGBT Film Festival, also looks at the link between meth and HIV. Featuring the personal stories of a racially diverse group of gay male 12-step friends, it is the latest documentary about the drug among gay men; others include 2007's Rock Bottom, 2015's British work Chemsex, and 2017's parTy boi, about meth and gay black men specifically.
I spoke to Crawford about his film, whose trailer can be seen and screening dates nationwide followed here.
Tim Murphy: Hi, Terrence! So how did this documentary come to be?
Terrence Crawford: I finished NYU film school three years later than I should have, and I can mostly attribute that delay to meth addiction, which led to a few years off for medical leave and rehab. By 2015, I realized I couldn't keep this up. I wanted to get my shit together, so I found a 12-step program that spoke to my meth addiction and was able to maintain sobriety through the end of my final year in college. Then straight out of college, I was an associate producer on the USA Network show Inside the FBI, which profiled FBI agents in the anti-terrorism task force in New York and D.C. I was able to go on some mob arrests and to meet [former FBI director] Jim Comey.
And at one point, John Maidman, the producer of Inside the FBI, asked me, "What do you care about? What drives you?" I told him I was passionate about recovery and helping people with crystal meth addiction. I was eight months sober at that point. We were both jobless at that moment, so we had coffee and decided to make this film together. I provided the access [via his network of 12-step friends], and he provided the equipment; he would shoot, and I would direct and interview. I'd already made a short doc about the issue for a class with a professor who was one of Spike Lee's editors.
TM: What kind of film did you want to make?
TC: My initial reason for making the film was that I felt I couldn't share my own story with friends and family. I was too ashamed and embarrassed to adequately tell people what I was going through. Meth addiction has a stigma and a gravity to the general public that's different from alcoholism or even cocaine addiction. I told a few people and had received this shocked and worried look from them.
TM: How did you want to distinguish your film from the previous meth films?
TC: I wanted to show meth addicts as people largely in recovery who were successful and bright, whom the general public could relate to. I call this my coming-out story, in terms of letting the world know that meth addicts are people you shouldn't give up on. We're not lost, hopeless causes. I think choosing to focus only on the depth and despair of addiction is harmful to our community.
TM: How did you get people to be in it, given the stigma?
TC: The guys in the movie, many of whom are my friends, initially had a lot of hesitation. They worried that if their coworkers found out, it would harm their job prospects. And I felt that way myself. So I thought that showing addicts in a positive light would do a great deal in terms of helping our reputation. And that's how I got people to come around. People wanted to tell their story of recovery.
TM: However, you do feature Kristian, someone who is deep in the throes of addiction. You even show him shooting up, extremely high. It is very difficult to watch. And then we find out that he's gotten HIV. Did you have ethical qualms about featuring someone who maybe was not in a position to make the best judgment about appearing on camera that way?
TC: Yes, it is an ethical issue I've been dealing with. I felt that the only way for the film to be successful in representing this crisis was to show people using. In terms of my personal relationship with him, that's something I'm not sure he or I will regret. It was my idea to shoot him getting high, and he later had regrets about it, but I told him I think we needed to show someone who isn't successful in order to highlight the stories that are.
TM: How is he doing now?
TC: I took him to lunch a couple of times last year and encouraged him to come back to 12-step, where I met him. Mostly recently, the number I used to reach him doesn't seem to be working. Although I did hear that he's been spotted at a meeting recently. Originally when he relapsed in 12-step, he said that he experienced lots of shaming from people in the room he was close to, so he decided he wasn't going to stick around.
TM: Which brings up another point. Why do you just show abstinence-based 12-step, and some one-on-one therapy, as a means of dealing with addiction, when in fact New York City's health department in recent years has been working with Housing Works and GMHC to start a program called Re-Charge that's harm-reduction focused, meaning that total abstinence is not required or even necessarily the goal? The LGBT Community Center has a non-12-step program as well. Focusing only on 12-step leaves a lot of people out of the equation.
TC: I'd say that 12-step and harm reduction aren't mutually exclusive, but that there's a lot of hardliners in 12-step who incorrectly interpret the original intent of the program. There's a lot of shame associated with relapse, which is definitely part of my story, and that's not how 12-step originally intended it. But 12-step is still the most commonly available tool. You don't have to follow every aspect of 12-step to benefit from it.
TM: What has been the most useful aspect of 12-step to you?
TC: The community aspect. I don't particularly buy into much of the spiritual work. The step work has had only a marginal impact on my recovery. I think having a place to go where there's other addicts who share my experience, where I can go hang out and have fellowship, is by far the most important aspect to me and to the characters in the film.
TM: Why aren't pharmaceutical interventions for meth addiction like Wellbutrin (bupropion), naltrexone, and ibogaine mentioned in the film?
TC: By the time I'd researched that stuff, we'd been in production for a year and were committed to our characters, and I didn't want anything to feel tacked on. David Fawcett, Ph.D., the author of Lust, Men and Meth, had already been interviewed and was the research glue in the doc, describing meth's effect on the brain and on sexual habits. But the purpose of the film is to show a general audience people in recovery in a positive light. I am interested in those clinical trials, though.
TM: What do you think are the main HIV links in the film?
TC: So many of our characters first began using in the early 2000s because they had been balls-deep in the AIDS crisis. Many of them had contracted HIV in the 1980s and 1990s and had been fighting for their lives. They weren't employed, they were on public assistance, they thought they were going to die. Then it became clear that they weren't going to die soon, and that's when they found crystal meth -- when there was trauma in the community. People also just wanted to escape and celebrate.
And with the younger guys in the film, they contracted HIV only after they started using crystal, because they were having unsafe sex with HIV-positive partners who weren't taking their meds. We want to do screenings and partnerships with local HIV/AIDS groups and community health centers nationwide through the end of the year, while we try to find a distribution platform like Netflix or Starz.
TM: What do you want people to take away from the film?
TC: I want people who may not have been familiar with gay crystal meth addicts to watch my film and empathize and to see them in a positive light. I want them to see us as people capable of great things. And I want to lessen the stigma of people in recovery from this drug. It was actually used by presidents, soldiers, and housewives in the 1950s, and some of those points have been missed along the way.
Resources If You or Someone You Know Are Struggling With Crystal Meth