One of the best documentaries of the year is also, on its surface, one of the simplest. To make The Hottest August, director Brett Story spent the month of August 2017 talking to New Yorkers about their hopes for the future as well as their anxieties. Story and her crew visited many well-traveled spots — Midtown Manhattan, people’s front stoops in brownstone Brooklyn — as well as some out-of-the-way places like Rockaway Beach, where residents worried about an eroding shoreline even before Hurricane Sandy devastated the area in 2012.
The movie was named for the expectation that the month would be the hottest August on record in the northern hemisphere — and while, in the end, it turned out to be slightly cooler than August 2016, the trendline has continued upward.
So what emerged from Story’s interviews was a portrait of ordinary people living in the shadow of looming climate change and the threats it poses to their ways of life. (The film’s official description is “A film about climate change, disguised as a portrait of collective anxiety.”) The Hottest August is a funny and fascinating film, but with an air of the uncanny hanging over everything.
As in her outstanding 2016 documentary The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, Story’s interviews with her Hottest August subjects are shot with a stationary camera, often using their surroundings to help frame and provide subtle context for their answers; small interstitial moments give the film a sense of otherworldliness. Earth is our home, the place where we live, but with its cinematic vocabulary, The Hottest August presents a sense of strangeness, of being small beings living on a big planet whirling through an even bigger universe.
Story, who is Canadian and holds a PhD in human geography from the University of Toronto, met me in Brooklyn to discuss how she made the movie, how she imbued it with a feeling of sci-fi peculiarity, and how she navigates her own feelings of “futureless-ness.”
The Hottest August is a documentary with a topic on its mind — how the looming possibility of devastating effects of climate change weighs on ordinary people right now. But it alludes to that topic rather than being direct. The meaning accumulates with your interviews, rather than being stated up front. How do you approach making a movie that will ultimately be allusive?
I feel like we’re living in a time when climate change news has accelerated and intensified. It’s not like we weren’t talking about environmental issues 15 years ago. But there’s something about now in which it feels so overwhelming and so intense. Now, there’s a kind of undeniability about planetary crisis.
I was thinking about how that was for me, personally, making it really hard to think in future terms — just, like, planning. I would think, “Oh, should I have a house one day?” Or, “Will I change careers?” And every time I had a thought that it felt slightly absurd. On a personal level, there’s a sense for me of a kind of futureless-ness.
We live in a socio-political time in which there are endless sources of bad news, and scary news, and Trump’s presidency, and violence at the border, and neo-Nazis marching around.
So I became quite preoccupied, trying to think about a way to connect these personal feelings of futureless-ness with an interest in how it was affecting how we live socially.
But at the same time, I had to admit to myself that I don’t watch climate change films, and ask myself why. I don’t even read that much material about climate change, these long articles. It’s not that I’m uninterested, and it’s not because I don’t think it matters — totally the opposite. But I’m not sure what I have to learn from these pieces, because I’m already on board. I know. I know, and I think lots of us know, both that climate change is real and that it’s really bad and really scary.
So the film emerged out of an interest in subverting what constitutes a climate change film and thinking about what it is we have to learn at this moment that would be useful. For me, what I have to learn that might be useful is the causes of our paralysis, and the consequences of living in a future-less world. The social consequences of that. Is it connected? Is there a kind of nihilism that pervades? What are we doing with this dread and this anxiety? How’s it translating? How’s it being captured by political forces and ideas of who’s deserving and who’s undeserving of resources?
So the very origins of the project came out of a desire to look at climate change by looking away from it.
As soon as we started filming, I knew I was not going to utter the words “climate change.” I was going to ask people questions that would allow them to dictate what the conversation would be.
Some have said, and I agree, that people are going to look back at this time — at all of our cultural artifacts, all the books that get written, and the phones that get made — and be able to see climate change in all of them, even if they’re not obviously interested in that topic.
New York is a particularly interesting place to investigate this because it has experienced some really recent, big weather events that caused measurable damage to the city that some people are still living with, like Hurricane Sandy in 2012. There are still people who don’t have their homes back.
I wanted to make a film where I was living. I wanted to have the confidence of knowing a place and knowing how to discover what I don’t know about it.
So it wasn’t even so much that it had to be New York. Any city holds lots of contradictions, but it needed to be a city that really exemplifies the contradictions. The economic contradictions — the absurd levels of wealth, absurd levels of poverty. The density of all these strangers living side by side.
And I really love making films in which I don’t follow characters but I have encounters with strangers. The Hottest August gave me a pretext to do a little bit more than what we’re all already doing with most of our day, which is encountering people and learning a little bit about life through those small encounters.
So it had to be a film that takes place in a dense place — a dense, full, vibrant, contradictory space. And yeah, I think it’s fitting that New York is a power capital of the world. It’s surrounded by water. That water is rising. It’s had its few climate catastrophes. But for me, it was also just about doing a deep study of a place where I could roam around with a sense of what I already know and what I have yet to find out about a place I call home.
I wanted the film to settle in a space [that tapped into] the deeply ordinary, and also allow it to feel strange for people. And the imagery needed to help us do that. As soon as we see images that we’ve seen before, we become really passive viewers. So the trick was finding images that we hadn’t seen before, but could also convey nothing more than ordinary life in different places. There’s a kind of delight in, you know, different blocks that look so radically different from each other, and yet they get called the same city.
There’s one scene, in the Brooklyn Navy Yards I think, that really did look kind of otherworldly, even if it’s just this one space.
It looks like a Soviet spaceship.
Exactly. It’s a Tarkovsky.
The film is made up of genuinely spontaneous encounters. All we could do was pick locations. So all we could think about was, where do we go so that we’ll meet people once we’re there?
Were you asking people where you should go next? Were you wandering around with a tripod?
Yeah, we were carrying a tripod. Some of the process of choosing just had to do with aesthetic inclinations. But I also wanted to offer some order to the disorder, to offer the audience a way through wide-ranging ideas. If I’m going to offer people a film that asks them to make associations between lots of different things and it doesn’t have a plot or any drama or a story, then I should at least give it some sort of aesthetic sensibility. It’s like basic architecture for the film.
I think of The Hottest August as a film that’s arranged through a series of detours. The conversations themselves are all sort of off-point, even when you start to realize that there are a set of questions that I’m asking everybody.
I’m genuinely approaching people and saying, “Hey we’re making a film about how people are doing this summer and what you’re thinking about.” Which is so loose! And then trusting my own skills as an interviewer, to hear what people are saying and to follow them there.
Then I take those conversational detours and try and choreograph them in the edit room so that they point to something.
If we’re shooting an interview in a sandcastle on Rockaway Beach, at a sandcastle-building contest, and an umbrella rolls away, we don’t know what that means. It might not mean anything. But it’s an opportunity to just delight in this strangeness and absurdity. The fact that someone walks by at the exact same moment and his bathing suit matches, can be part of the coincidences and delights that also remind us how strange we are, as human beings occupying this planet and making things on it and living our little lives on it. So a lot of the visual details are just purely about that, rather than pointing directly to themes or issues.
New York is such a good city for a movie like this — everyone is very opinionated and willing to share their opinions with you.
That’s the thing: It’s a city in which, for whatever reasons, people are incredibly generous. I’ve felt that on a personal level; when I moved here for the first time for a brief stint, in 2008, I didn’t have a single friend. At a certain point I was like, “I don’t even need friends. I’m having such interesting conversations with all the people that I just meet in the course of my day.” I think people are really generous with themselves. Especially if they feel respected, and especially if you’re asking genuine questions and genuinely listening. People know when they’re being listened to.
Did you learn anything surprising through doing all of these interviews, talking to all of these people?
I think that I expected people to feel and talk about their anxieties and their worries a lot. Maybe not necessarily name environmental catastrophe as the cause of those anxieties, but still to point to those worries and anxieties. What I didn’t expect was that, yes, that happened, but people expressed so much more optimism than I expected.
Someone would say, “I’m getting kicked out of my house next week,” or, “I can’t get a job, I have to walk dogs,” or, “I’m worried about Social Security in the future,” but then they’d almost immediately also find a way to say everything was going to be fine. Like, “My luck’s going to turn. I’m going to make some better decisions moving forward. I’m going to get on top of this. I’m going to be my own personal entrepreneur. And then I won’t get evicted next week.”
I found this quite devastating. And I found it surprising and really interesting.
We have to live in this world. We have to get up every morning in it. There’s a luxury to letting ourselves be overwhelmed with the pessimism and the dread, but the mind has capacity to play all kinds of beautiful tricks.
That became really interesting to me, something that I wanted to bring out as a theme.
Isn’t that part of the problem, too? We know this … thing … is coming. But it’s hard to convince a lot of people, and even ourselves, that we need to do anything about it. It’s like, “Well, it will happen and we’ll figure something out” — like, we’ll all move to the moon or whatever and it’ll be fine.
I also wonder how much of this is part of Americans’ relentless optimism about the future. I wonder if you made this film in France, if you’d have a different film.
I think that’s true. I wonder what that’s about. Because I don’t think it’s just like, optimism is American. I think that versions of pessimism are also American, but I do feel like people have to be optimistic because … I have something to say about this. I feel like when we admit that life is pretty bad, there’s a way in which, in America — and I’ll include Canada in this too — the narrative of personal success versus personal failure is so dominant that as soon as you admit that things are shitty, you’re also kind of admitting that you’re a personal failure. Because that’s the narrative we’re sold.
And that’s devastating, too. I mean, I don’t want to feel like my life is shitty, because it’s all my fault, because I fucked up too much, or because I failed on too many fronts. That “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative — the one that says you can be anything you want, and then if you’re not, it’s all your fault — that makes optimism the better choice. Because otherwise what are you going to do with that humiliation and that shame?
That’s a big part of what I was interested in while making this film: thinking about the paralysis we feel, the powerlessness we feel, the reasons we can’t seem to do anything while our planet is collapsing.
We have an increasing loss of the sense of being in a society in which we can make social demands. So everything gets individualized. Change is only possible through individual action. And, I admit, I just don’t believe my personal action is going to have a huge effect — if I don’t use some straws tomorrow, I don’t think that’s going to cut carbon emissions. And I think that’s true of a lot of people.
So, does that make me the bad guy when it comes to climate change? No. I think when we lose a sense of belonging to a collective and having collective power over our circumstances, we can default to a kind of hopelessness or paralysis when it comes to things as big as environmental disruption.
As well as magical thinking, that it’s just going to work out.
That it’s just going to work out, yeah. I mean, it has to work out, because there’s no other way. We can’t come up with another possible scenario.
Plus, we get the idea that it’s always worked out in the past. Which is not true. Humankind is still here, but civilizations have disappeared.
Magical thinking is such a good phrase. It’s what I’m always interested in my films. What stories, what forms of magical thinking become so natural to us that we can’t think past them? I’m not saying that other people think crazy things — I include myself in this. What becomes received wisdom, so that we get trapped and can’t think outside of it?
And how could something like cinema — which can make us feel, and think, and hear slightly differently, or set us off kilter — how can that reacquaint us with our own forms of reality and dislodge some of that actual thinking?
Maybe that’s investing too much [power] in cinema. But that is what makes art complex and, for me, what makes it political. I think it’s more effective at [making us feel or think differently] than sending messages. Art can rejigger our relationship to the world such that we can start to examine why we even think stuff.
I think this is why The Hottest August has the feeling of science fiction, in a way, even though it doesn’t present itself as a science fiction film. Sci-fi is always trying to dislodge us from the contexts in which we make our assumptions. It unsettles us, makes us feel a little strange so that we see the world differently.
That was a really fun thing to play with creatively. That’s what we talked about while making it: This isn’t a science fiction movie and there’s no science fiction narrative, but can we introduce some sci-fi elements into it?
So, [the film’s editor] Nels [Bangerter] and I had a lot of fun with it. The first time he showed me the edit where we zoom in on the moon, and then the moon starts to spin around? I was like, “Nels, what are you doing? This is so weird!” And he’s like, “Just try it.” And now it’s my favorite part. Or that moment where the umbrella blows away — that is actually just totally ordinary. But it’s a moment where you can be like, “Oh, yeah, the world is a weird and wild place. And we’re on a planet, and there’s other planets, and there’s animals, and they’re looking at us, and they’re judging us.”
I think ordinary life is science fiction, if we can see it in those terms.
The Hottest August opens in select theaters on November 15 and will continue to screen in the weeks following; check the film’s website for details.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.