Playing at Montreal’s RIDM, director Patric Chiha’s Brothers of the Night blends documentary and fiction, as it evokes Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s phantasmagorical melodramas to tell the story of male Bulgarian sex workers in Vienna. With echoes of Querelle, the transitional scenes feature handsome and lusty subjects dressed as sailors while they go through the motions of real and imagined interactions. These moments serve as counterpoints to the more ordinary experiences of hustlers and the more spontaneous spirit of club scenes and drunken parties crammed into small, sparsely decorated apartments.
The testimonials within the film, often framed as conversations, illuminate the motivations of apparently straight Bulgarians going gay for pay. While some of the men identify as bisexual or gay, most seem to maintain being straight. Most have wives at home, and they send money whenever they can. Others will only perform certain sex acts with other men in order to preserve the sanctity of their heterosexuality. Many of the hustlers spend a lot of their earnings paying women for sex — one even falls in love, throwing his life and work off-balance.
The sexual fluidity works best when Chiha’s filmmaking style evokes mythology rather than reality. The strangeness of this world exists in a constant state of fluidity, as it seems obsessively focused on the beauty, youth and depravity that exists outside the rules of mainstream society. The men tell stories — some absurd, some mundane — but the film doesn’t try to parse through them for truth. In the fluidity of this hidden world, where identities are experimented with and refined for pleasure and profit, reality itself takes on a fantastical edge. Truth becomes malleable, especially when it comes to sexual performances and fulfillment of client desires. Sex itself remains off-screen, and even when bound by the artificiality of the meetings and their transactional nature, it maintains a sacred atmosphere.
Chiha doesn’t reach towards traditional tropes of documentary fiction, creating montages and environments that are loaded with artificiality. Colored gels are used to block spaces with color and light, evoking a mysterious romance of sex work that might seem removed from reality. As the men discuss the importance of safe sex or the “worst” thing a client has ever asked them to do, they do so with an unexpected camaraderie. Echoing the films that they’re inspired by (Fassbinder, Kenneth Anger and Gus Van Sant), there seems to be a hidden world of male bonding and intense friendship at the heart of these interactions. Love affairs between the men seem to hang around the edges rather than up forward, as most of the subjects don’t admit to being interested in men, and they would be especially unwilling to admit to falling in love with a cohort. Even so, love emerges in playful ribbing and moments of accidental intimacy — still unspoken, but nonetheless out in the open.
Brothers of the Night takes an unexpected approach and reveals hidden parts of life amongst Bulgarian male hustlers in Vienna. Tangentially touching on economic and immigration issues, the film ultimately becomes romantic, but Chiha doesn’t underscore the rather mundane day to day facets of their lives. Concerned less with activism, the documentary also takes a rather adoring approach with the men who live on the fringes of Viennese society without being overtly glossy about the messier, harder parts of the job. Like a new age Kenneth Anger with dollops of Facebook and social media, Brothers of the Night feels like a haunted celebration of male sexuality.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.