MUBI is a streaming service catering to cinephiles who believe in quality over quantity. Each day, MUBI adds a new film to its library, where it will stay for 30 days, after which it circulates out and gives room for another new entry. Throughout 2019, we will highlight one MUBI movie per month to help illustrate the catalog’s breadth and importance.
Brothers of the Night is, at least on paper, a similar sort of documentary to any you might find in the human interest subcategory, even if you likely won’t find another about this specific subject. Following the exploits of Romani gay sex workers in Vienna, this film by Patric Chiha pulls back the curtain on a very specific subculture, peering in on these young men’s hopes, dreams, desires, and obligations in a way that is gripping and empathetic. But that’s not the thing that’s going to draw you in initially. No, that would be the cinematography.
When I first loaded up Brothers of the Night, I had to double check that what I was watching was in fact a documentary, only to be reaffirmed that the situations I was seeing were playing out with real people in real time. Whatever magic Chiha pulled to get this effect is inspiring, as the entire movie is lit like a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film, with soft neon hues of blue, pink, and purple capturing the bisexual nightlife of the Austrian queer club circuit. And despite having cameras clearly very close to his subjects, the interactions between them are so natural there is never any sense of the fourth wall being broken, save for some direct interviews that almost serve solely to remind us that what we are witnessing is totally authentic. This is a gorgeous film and an artistic achievement purely in an aesthetic sense.
However, there’s more to the film than just looking pretty. As we grow to learn about these Bulgarian Romani, it becomes clear that Chiha’s goal is, at least in part, to humanize those working in the sex trade. These are men in their early twenties who travel from poor places in Bulgaria to a foreign country for the opportunity to work, and the line of work that happens to be available and profitable is prostitution. Not all of these men are gay. Some have wives and children back home, their relationships strained by the distance if not the nature of the work these men do to support their families. Some like their job and others are just doing it to get money quickly. Gender-nonconforming individuals – the term “transvestite” is thrown around a lot, so it’s unclear how these specific folks identify – are an accepted norm, dancing in the club like any other woman looking to let loose on a floor full of attractive men. The point is that watching these folks tell their stories to the camera and one another is a testament to their relatability and humanity, an explicit rebuttal against how sex workers are often portrayed as disgusting or amoral.
You also see this in how these men have developed a sense of community around their shared profession. Their lives are transient and episodic, going back and forth between Bulgaria and Austria at stilted intervals and for differing reasons, but as a whole they are a fraternity, supportive of one another and devoid of professional judgment. There is continual explicit candor as these male prostitutes share tips, tell each other how much they’ve earned for a particular sex act, and what their most extreme sex acts and paydays have been, much in the same way that you or I might tell an amusing anecdote to a coworker. The only tragedy implicit in their lives is not the sex work itself but the fact they need to travel away from home to find work, as that is the shared experience that allows these men to develop a family, no matter how fleeting.
Brothers of the Night is a film about love, and sex has absolutely nothing to do with that love, even though sex is the one thing these men have in common. There is intimacy and care among this group that is authentic and raw, no less legitimate for being cloaked in the artificial lights of clubs and bars. Patric Chiha provides us a window into this community and makes us feel a part of it, at least until the sun comes up, the dancers disperse, and the sex workers get on the next bus back home.