“The story of The Hoist is the story of gay sex.” The opening line of the new documentary from Charles Lum and Todd Verow sets up the films agenda perfectly. Age of Consent charts the journey of The Hoist; one of London’s last remaining gay leather bars. Open to the public in 1996, the story of The Hoist has paralleled the story of the decriminalisation and the social acceptance of gay sex. It follows the uphill struggle of the homosexual community via events such as The Spanner Trial and the enforcement of Section 28 through to modern issues such as Grindr and the relevance of social interaction, all framed within the viewpoint of the flagship gay institution in Vauxhall, London.
To firstly address the inevitable ‘elephant in the room’; Age of Consent is explicit. The film leaves nothing to the imagination with regards to what goes on inside The Hoist, and audience members that feel uncomfortable with the idea of on-screen nudity or sex of any kind should be aware that Lum and Verow don’t shy away from showing the events of a standard night at the leather bar. Whilst these sexual scenes are initially shocking, the audience are soon desensitised to the content. In fact, the sex actually serves as a trophy, declaring victory over the homophobic legislation that has prohibited gay sex and its cinematic portrayal in the past.
This leads me to commend the cinematography as a whole, which has a distinctly guerilla feel to it. This ‘home-made’ look of the aesthetics makes the film look as dark and filthy as the club it’s documenting. It’s also incredible how well Lum and Verow manage to juggle the different tones of the film. Age of Consent often exposes shocking, horrific truths about the treatment of gay people in recent years (for instance, it tells us that more gay people were arrested for indecency in 1989 than 1966), and these statistics can often be quite startling. However, Lum and Verow interestingly juxtapose these arresting facts with interviews from people like the cleaner of The Hoist, employed to restore the club to its former state after the evening’s activities. A man who loves his job, the cleaner provides a great deal of comic relief and his jovial attitude towards the sexual ventures of the clubs patrons provides a well-timed interlude between the other more sensitive case studies and interviews.
Without a doubt, the real treasure in the film comes in the form of inspiring talking heads with cultural commentators and human rights activists (former MP Peter Tatchell and the BFI’s own Brian Robinson being just two examples). These interviews provide often-shocking insight into the historical fight for equality with regards to gay sex and succeed in grabbing both the audience’s attention and sympathy. The film asks vital questions about liberty, choice, freedom and equality applied to issues such as Sadomasochism and fetishism; practices celebrated by The Hoist.
The very existence of Age of Consent as a film is a testament to the process of social change it examines. No more than 40 years ago, a documentary like this would’ve been impossible to make due to the attitudes towards gay sex. Going to a screening of the documentary at the BFI Flare Festival in the same week as the first gay marriage was an inspiring, liberating experience; the story of The Hoist is a small segment of a fight for equality that, although still being fought, is seeing more success in today’s society than ever before. Directors Lum and Verow have spoken about releasing a censored version for television, which is an excellent idea; Age of Consent is an important documentary that needs to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.
Age of Consent (2014), directed by Charles Lum and Todd Verow, is pending distribution and a BBFC Certificate. The film was screened as part of the BFI Flare Festival at London’s Southbank.