These days, when folks set out to make a documentary, they typically have a pretty clear idea of what they’re expecting to find. Not Brett Story, who approaches “The Hottest August” like some kind of anthropologist from the future, interviewing New Yorkers of all ages and backgrounds, as if any one of them might hold the key to what happened to the planet. Does Story know something we don’t? Has global warming reached such a point that our survival hangs in the balance, where each and every person she encounters is potentially both the victim and the culprit in the great whodunit of our species’ extinction?
Most climate change documentaries approach the issue from a place of hysteria, overwhelming audiences with statistics and doom-and-gloom scenarios, whereas Story attempts to reframe the subject from a different perspective. Her idea — at once rigorously serious in intent and playfully open-minded in approach — was to spend a month, August 2017, going out each day and interviewing average New Yorkers about what concerned them, no matter what the source of their anxiety. In so doing, she might indirectly capture the mood of this particular moment in time.
Let me explain, since the approach no doubt sounds counterintuitive but has been so cleverly assembled that it obliges audiences to think about how we live in an entirely new way: In 2016’s “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes,” Story examined the impact of our country’s incarceration practices on individuals and communities without focusing her camera on any actual jails — or crime, for that matter. Here, she takes an even more oblique approach, once again following her own curiosity to engage with human beings, while allowing the off-screen crisis to reveal itself in their attitudes and behavior.
At first, it feels like an unfocused fishing expedition. “Do you have any worries about the future?” asks Story, and the answers play like speculative fiction in reverse, as if fact-checked by some omniscient future voice. (Clare Coulter provides the abstract narration.) The responses run the gamut, rarely touching on climate change, which is telling in and of itself. At a time when our impact on global weather conditions can be both measured and felt, we as a society have chosen to concentrate on other issues. Call it “human privilege”: a notion, not unlike “white privilege” or “male privilege,” but one that extends to nearly the entire species, whereby humans enjoy a luxury other life-forms don’t of guzzling resources and reshaping our planet.
Take the opening scene, in which two union workers lean out the window of an air-conditioned upstairs apartment to talk about their jobs, eventually getting around to their concerns about the influx of foreigners willing to work for lower wages. There are a thousand reasons for immigration, and climate change is one of them, as refugees from environmentally embattled countries create a ripple effect that reaches back to first-world economies. Story doesn’t spell this out, but engaged audiences will start to pick up on the pattern.
Same goes for the two homeowners frustrated that FEMA took so long to restore their electricity after Hurricane Sandy. One interprets the occurrence of the devastating “100-year storm” as proof that they’re safe for another 100 years, not understanding that rising sea levels are making the impact of seasonal floods worse each year. Whether the end is nigh or still a million millennia away, the way we live now is unsustainable.
Story hasn’t set out to lecture the individuals she interviews, or her audience. Rather, she politely engages with regular people — as if such a thing as “regular people” exists — carefully selecting the sound bites and details that reinforce her themes. Those issues extend far beyond climate change, mind you. No movie can encompass everything that’s on the minds of Americans at the moment, but Story’s modest but wide-ranging cine-essay comes closest, constructed in such a fashion that no two audiences will see it the same way.
It’s an infinitely rich sort of Rorschach test for our respective individual anxieties in these tempestuous times, as Story and editor Nels Bangerter (“Cameraperson,” “Let the Fire Burn”) invite viewers to read what they please into their elaborate brain-teaser, whether those anxieties are identified outright or not. One doesn’t need to name Trump to feel his impact on people (August 2017 was the month of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, N.C.), or to speak the words “racism,” “police brutality” and “sexual assault” to recognize citizens responding to those threats — at Black Lives Matter rallies, self-defense classes or those places where you can pay for the chance to smash an old PC to smithereens with a sledgehammer.
Story would no doubt be the first to admit a preference for colorful personalities (a Zumba fitness instructor, a performance artist who ventures out in public dressed as an “Afronaut”) and eccentric behaviors (attendees who donned 1920s fashions for the city’s annual Jazz Age Lawn Party, the different ways people view a solar eclipse). That impulse gives her film the lightly absurdist feel of an Ulrich Seidl documentary — the ones where he assembles a group of weirdos and asks them to demonstrate their eccentricities, à la “In the Basement.”
Even so, the director approaches all her human subjects with generosity and good humor, eliciting smiles from them as they talk — and laughter from us later as we observe them. Would those she interviews have been quite as open with a male director, like Errol Morris, whose style circa “Vernon, Florida” the project roughly resembles? Such comparisons aside (one also senses the influence of Ruben Östlund, especially “Incident by a Bank,” in the cold, almost architectural compositions and post-production reframing of footage), Story’s an original, and the film is a revelation — a movie that’s as deep as we’re willing to read into it, and an invaluable time capsule for summers far in our future, assuming we ever get there.