In 2016, Brett Story made a documentary about the state of penitentiaries in the U.S. without ever shooting inside one. The Prison in Twelve Landscapes offered a snapshot of the American incarceration system through a dozen of thematically and formally distinct vignettes. They were not portraits of prisons, but of the people and spaces orbiting around them. There were female inmates who’d fought wildfires in California, a man who made a business out of people struggling to send life’s necessities to their loved ones behind bars, and a group of women waiting for a bus to ship them to visit relatives held captive.
The whole project was, as Story would later put it, a reaction to conventional prison documentaries and their pernicious tendency to put inmates on display, “as if there were no other way of making the prison or its captive subjects visible, and as if visibility involved nothing more than the state of being able to see and to be seen.” Jails were everywhere around the frame, but never at its centre. The Prison in Twelve Landscapes problematized the strength and scope of the penitentiary system by homing in on ostensibly liberated spaces, only to show the extent to which these were still deeply shaped by incarceration practices. Much of its thesis was made in implication.
The Hottest August works in the same way. Story’s fourth documentary feature world premiered at True/False early this year, and has ever since toured the festival circuit under the banner “a climate change documentary.” I fear the label may be more provocative than fitting. For this is not your conventional disquisition of an ecological catastrophe: it does not dissect a looming armageddon through data or talking heads, nor does it offer that much evidence of ecological destruction in the first place. In fact, it refuses to place climate change at its center, but lets it grow organically out of a myriad different themes and leitmotifs. More than a film about climate change then, this is a portrait of the way people internalize an encroaching crisis, and how the news about the planet’s collapse shape the way we carry ourselves in the world, and understand our place inside it.
It is also, perhaps far more evidently than anything else, a large canvas of a space in time. The Hottest August was shot in New York over that summer month in 2017. Together with cinematographer Derek Howard and a micro crew, Story spent those thirty days wading through the city’s five boroughs to shoot and chat with ordinary folks and strangers. The result is hardly a tourist-friendly and cliché-riddled valentine to the city, and more a symphony of interstitial spaces seldom seen onscreen. We carom off Governor’s Island to the Rockaways, crisscross from Manhattan’s Wrecking Bar to the American Museum of Natural History, hit Dead Horse Bay, head west to Staten Island, and up north again to Bronx Housing Court. All through the journey, Story pauses to talk with the people she bumps into. Some return to the screen, others don’t. Some of the events recorded are planned (like the solar eclipse on August 21st); others (like a wonderful shot of people gingerly walking their way out of the Coney Island’s Cyclone rollercoaster, stranded atop the scaffolding) happen by sheer chance.
It’s a kaleidoscope of conversations and encounters that harkens back to the serendipitous and peripatetic beauty of Chronicle of a Summer (1960). In that film, directors Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin wandered around Paris to ask friends and passersby: Are you happy? Three years later, that same question would be picked up again by Chris Marker’s Le joli mai (1963), a film Story has claimed hers was partly inspired by. But The Hottest August adds a slight twist, pivoting as it does less on a question of people’s happiness and more on one about their feelings toward an impeding doom: Are you worried about the future?
For all the different socio-economic strata Story’s New Yorkers hail from, it’s curious to see how many of their answers seem to belie a widespread denial. There’s a couple of old-time Queens denizens who shrug off the worries with a nonchalant it’s-beyond-my-control swagger; two residents living on a stretch of coastline still recovering from Hurricane Sandy and ranting against Al Gore’s money-making climate change conspiracies; and a hedge fund manager-cum-art collector with big ideas about economics and world order, who frowns the minute Story suggests that capitalism may itself be a faulty paradigm.
None of this is to suggest that The Hottest August is a doctrinaire or moralistic work. Even as it invites us to scrutinize some of the most problematic postures of its subjects, especially those where the stench of our Trumpian zeitgeist smells most acrid, The Hottest August does not chastise them. Nor does it seek to parcel out some grand message, or push this or that agenda—except perhaps in its resolute commitment to sponge up some of the paranoias of the times, and dislodge truths and modes of being we’ve come to embrace as dogmas. That was the main purpose behind The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, and what made its thesis so radical: it invited us to imagine a world in which prisons didn’t have to exist. Here, the focus moves away from the prison apparatus to embrace a far more ethereal beast, a certain mode of being that both encourages to totalize the world in front us and makes it impossible to question our place inside it. But it also, to an extent The Prison was perhaps not as concerned with, urges us to rethink the role of filmmaking in that very struggle.
In Chronicle of a Summer, Rouch and Morin linked the question of personal happiness to society’s historical consciousness. The year was 1960, the war with Algeria still ongoing, the traumas of World War II still an open wound: in what is possibly the film’s most iconic chat, an Auschwitz survivor shows a number tattooed on her arm to a couple of young African men unaware of its connection to the Holocaust. Yet Chronicle is also a profoundly reflexive work. Rouch and Morin regularly put themselves onscreen, revealing and questioning their role as shapers of the events that follow. It is as much about dissecting people’s awareness of the times they live in as it is about the role of filmmaking in them.
In its own roundabout way, The Hottest August walks the same path. It connects personal fears to historical consciousness, and historical consciousness to a question of artistic representation. And in this time and climate, it posits that cinema’s overarching purpose should be to leave clues for future generations seeking explanation as to what went wrong. It assumes, in a way that speaks to Schrader’s First Reformed (2017), that we already are doomed: no longer in the realm of inconvenient if still avoidable truths, but inescapable facts. In a world where the apocalypse is already happening, the best art can offer is to provide a snapshot of what we were, and pass it on. And that explains the curious temporal ambiguity that permeates Story’s pilgrimage, the way the film straddles past and future, as an archive in the making. Watching Story meander across the city, I was jolted by the tragic aftertaste the visuals came attached with, as if they’d been captured to be screened posthumously. Even the words of an invisible narrator (Clare Coulter, reciting excerpts from Zadie Smith, Karl Marx, and Annie Dillard) seem to echo from some faraway place, as though Story’s project was a cache of what we looked like, projected for future generations to glean something useful out of it. Early on, the voiceover muses: “what used to be is painful to remember.” But with a catastrophe upon us, committing images to memory may well be cinema’s most urgent task, and works like The Hottest August vital time capsules.