Set over a single summer in New York City, Brett Story’s The Hottest August. is a slinking, feverish meditation on the impending apocalypse. Here, Story speaks to Simran Hans about the twin evils of climate change and capitalism, and how they’re transforming the way we imagine the future.
Did you think about The Hottest August as a film about climate change first, or a film about New York City first?
I wanted to make a film that had the kind of formal parameters that I admired in Chris Marker’s film Le Joli Mai – the idea of one city over one month, treated like a soil sample. It didn’t necessarily need to take place in New York, but it needed to take place in a dense city full of contradiction, and a city that I live in and love.
I never mentioned the words ‘climate change’. I thought of it as about living in this moment – a sort of feeling of futureless-ness. That’s what it means to be [living through] climate change, for me. I was wondering ‘Is this something that’s actually common to many generations, or is this really specific to this moment?’ How do we move forward when the future feels like a big scary expanse, and how does it translate into the way people organise themselves as a society?
Would you describe yourself as a political filmmaker?
The questions that preoccupy me are about power and how it circulates. I’m terribly interested in systems and structures and institutions. At the same time, I have a kind of allergy to conventional social issue documentaries precisely because they simplify the world into problems that you need to know about and solutions that you need to get behind. I’m much more interested in questions about how art can be part of the fabric that awakens people to the conditions of life, questions that they already have a sense of but maybe need help making the connections to.
I think about life under capitalism a lot. For me this is very much a film about life in late capitalism. It’s inextricable from climate change; it tells people that there’s no such thing as a collective, that resources are scares, and that they need to compete for them. This project is thinking about how those two narratives dovetail.
How did you conceive of the sound design?
I worked with a brilliant sound designer called Ernst Karel. He’s a sound artist but also a sound ethnographer, mostly associated with the Sensory Ethnography Lab folks at Harvard.
When we got together to work on this project we talked a lot about trying to create a film that was deeply located in the ordinary, but also able to conjure a sense of the total weirdness and strangeness of being humans on a planet. I wanted it to have a quality of a Chantal Akerman film, and its like deep and abiding loyalty to the banal and the ordinary and the tedious and the personal – and at the same time offer a whiff of science fiction that lies in existence itself.
What’s great about him is he’s really committed to location sounds, so we worked a lot with radio waves, like those TV radio sounds during the protest scenes. Those are sounds that exist in the atmosphere – they conjure a sense of space, while they’re super grounded and alive. And it was just a process of working with him to create moments of the strange, the planetary – be a little playful even while inviting people to think about really hard immediate material things.
The narration quotes from Annie Dillard, Karl Marx and Zadie Smith. How did you come to those texts?
That Annie Dillard piece so evoked this really visceral model sense of anticipation, but also the state of feeling paralysed as something terrible in the distance gets closer. There’s this line in that essay about anaesthetic running up the arms, and a state of numbness. In the film I thought of it as a political paralysis.
The second piece we chose was the excerpt from Marx which also conjured the central question for the film which is how in times like this do we relate to each other? If we know the crash is going to come, and we’re encouraged not to deal with it collectively but instead hope that it falls on the head of our neighbour, then what hope is there, right? To find that kind of thinking and concern already within this 19th century text felt really poignant.
You talk about an ineffable feeling of dread. Are you able to pinpoint the moment at which that began to emerge?
When I started this film I was a woman in my late 30s trying to decide whether or not to have a baby. I couldn’t come to terms with the possibility that the world would be okay. That was intense, I couldn’t see a version of the future that people could bring their children into. And I thought that was dark that I couldn’t conceive of that. Part of this project was, what happens when the capacity to even imagine a future diminishes?
I can’t rationally say, I had a baby and I really think the future is going to be great and wonderful. I feel very terrified. But feeling terrified isn’t the same as feeling pessimistic, and isn’t the same as feeling things are doomed. I don’t feel nihilistic.
You open the film by asking your subjects how they feel about the future. After making the film, how do you feel about it?
It’s not easy for me to go up to strangers and ask them questions, but documentary filmmaking is this marvellous pretext to converse with people and realise how generous and surprising they can be. Coming to the end of the film just chipped away at that misanthropy.
Simran Hans is a writer and film critic for The Observer
Brett Story’s The Hottest August screens on Friday 6th September at Curzon Soho.