How are you feeling about the future?
That’s the question Brett Story poses to the people in her documentary The Hottest August—and given that the film was shot in the summer of 2017 in New York City, the answers don’t tend to be especially upbeat. The specter of climate change looms over the film, as does (oh right) the crumbling of American democracy, but it’s something that hangs in the air rather than being talked about directly, like an unpleasant family secret no one wants to bring up. After the film’s premiere at the True/False Film Festival last week, Story described the movie as being “almost like a soil sample,” pushing through the surface to examine what lies underneath. (The film also plays SXSW beginning Friday night.)
Story has a doctorate in geography, and she approaches her subjects—some of whom recur throughout the movie, some of whom are glimpsed only once—like she’s mapping terrain, moving forward inch by inch and accreting detail rather than forcing big-picture generalizations. Her previous movie, The Prison in 12 Landscapes, took the view from 10,000 feet, tracing how the ripples of mass incarceration have spread into every aspect of American life (a radio station that sends out dedications to inmates, a small business that specializes in assembling care packages that meet prisons’ strict and ever-shifting specifications). The Hottest August gets up close, as Story and her crew spent a month roaming the city, from midtown to the Rockaways (or, as one of her chattier subjects calls it, “Rockapulco”).
The narration, which is often by actress Clare Coulter, styles Story as “a stranger,” and not just because she’s Canadian—the whole film is informed by strangeness, an almost alien curiosity. There’s a touch of the subtle sci-fi of Chris Marker, whose Le Joli Mai Story has cited as a primary inspiration, but where his essay films tend to push toward conclusions, The Hottest August just floats, like a breeze blowing through people’s lives and back out onto the street. There’s no website to click at the end, no easy plan of action, just the sense that something is coming, and we know it, and we’re still not ready.
The Hottest August is, by its very nature, unsummarizable. (Not even the title helps: August 2016 was the hottest on record, but the month the film was shot fell short of the mark, although the last five Augusts are the five warmest on record.) Edited by Nels Bangerter, who also edited Cameraperson and Let the Fire Burn, it moves with the logic of a found-footage film, making associative leaps so that every cut sparks a thought, and often a jolt of pleasure as well; there’s a rightness to the ways its images fall together, even though it’s not always easy to articulate as you’re watching why the fit feels snug. We move from a young black woman, working in a call center as she makes her way through school, talking about her entrepreneurial future to a white working-class couple sitting outside their garage, their rhetoric about undesirable elements making their neighborhood less safe growing less comfortable by the word. (The ex-cops at a Staten Island bar who used to work Bed-Stuy could have come right out of Do the Right Thing.) Because the movie’s method relies largely on chance meetings, the encounters don’t often intersect with the city’s moneyed classes, but then they’re the ones whose lives are least likely to undergo upheaval in the years to come, unlike the women standing outside the ruins of houses destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, yet confident the proposed seawall at the end of their block will protect them from future calamities.
True/False ended with Room H.264, the latest iteration of a project by Jeff Reichert, Damon Smith, and Eric Hynes in which filmmakers are posed the question from Wim Wenders’ documentary Room 666: Essentially, is cinema dying? The answers, some of them given through actions instead of words—video artist Deborah Stratman took the camera off its tripod and ran into the stairwell—were, in their range and inventiveness, characteristic of the festival’s hothouse ferment, but Story’s segment was quiet and concise, punctuated with just a hint of a smile. “It might be that we’re killing it, or that’s it’s slowly dying because we’re reducing it to its numbest form, but I don’t think that has to be,” she said. “I think cinema is the language of light refracted through the imagination, and the delight in images that move and sounds that enliven. So—it’s on us to keep it alive.” Even face to face with a bleak future, The Hottest August is steeped in that kind of delight, the kind that reminds us that there’s beauty in the world, and a future that’s worth fighting for.