Toronto-based filmmaker Brett Story, whose previous film The Prison in Twelve Landscapes aired on Independent Lens in 2017, holds a PhD in geography and her unconventional storytelling style reflects both a geographer’s exploring eye and a listener’s empathetic ear. She approaches the interviews in The Hottest August as a way to learn from people and places. Story is always, as she told the Creative Independent, “searching for the complex ways in which people inhabit the contradictions of actual existence.”
Story told Women in Hollywood: “I was living in Montreal when I began making my first experimental Super 8 films, and was part of an artistic community rich in independent music and performance. Making a film is this incredibly exciting pretext to embark on an adventure, have conversations with strangers, collaborate with other artists, and then put something out into the world that people can engage, interpret, and find meaning in on their own terms.”
The Hottest August was a New York Times Critics’ Pick, where Glenn Kenny wrote, “This collection of interactions with ordinary people is a cinematic gift both simple and multilayered, an intellectual challenge and an emotional adventure… This documentary, for all of its considerable discrete moments and insights, is most fascinating because of its vivid demonstration of how the future is never really as we expect it to be.” Adds Sam Adams in Slate: “Even face to face with a bleak future, The Hottest August is steeped [in] delight, the kind that reminds us that there’s beauty in the world, and a future that’s worth fighting for.”
Story talked to us about making The Hottest August, including how her film was not meant to be a “typical” climate change doc, what was special about filming it in New York’s five boroughs, and many other things under the sun — from anxiety and COVID to Afronauts and guppies.
Why did you want to make The Hottest August? And can you talk about your unique approach to what is not “just another climate change film”?
I made this film in order to explore how people are navigating and narrating the intersecting crises of this moment. While so many climate change films seem focused only on delivering information, I am interested in why information isn’t in itself enough, it seems, to invigorate a mass movement against the continued plunder and pollution of the planet. I wanted to visit a wide cast of ordinary New Yorkers and produce a kind of archive of this moment; to look at how people live and make decisions and make sense of their own fears when they are also inside the kinds of power structures and struggles that make that exploitation and exhaustion of resources possible.
What do people do with their fear when they don’t have power? What is political about waking up with a distinct sense of dread, and how do we liberate ourselves from it? How does the ecological crisis intersect with other forms of economic, racial, and social inequality and violence? These are questions that it seems urgently in need of answering as we face ecological, capitalist catastrophe.
Who do you hope your film impacts the most?
The question for me isn’t who, it’s how. I hope this film validates people’s sense that the anxieties they are feeling are not a burden they alone feel or that they need to face alone. I hope the film invites a wider, shared conversation and reckoning among friends, neighbors, comrades, families about how we might go about regaining a sense of a future – and fighting for one, collectively.
I also hope it suggests a way of thinking about climate change that doesn’t separate it from other pressing questions, such as how power is distributed in society, who capitalism serves and disserves, why scapegoating others is a dangerous distraction from the need to build a truly collective, intersectional movement against the exploitation of the planet’s resources and for economic and racial justice.
If we were in a “collective anxiety” when you made your film, feels like that’s gone “up to 11” right now. Would this moment of COVID pandemic that we’re in make your characters — or you — think any differently about our futures? Have you envisioned in your head what a film about this pandemic would look like if you were able to make one?
The pandemic that we’re all in feels like an intensification and acceleration of the themes and anxieties of this film. As we suffer through this, we are faced with THE existential question of survival, and forced to reckon with our interconnectedness. It’s actually quite remarkable how, after decades of being told there’s “no money” for a social safety net, for social housing, for universal health care, for debt relief, and for dealing with climate change, all of this money is now appearing and some of it is being allocated for exactly these things.
Things we were told are impossible are now possible: releasing prisoners, housing homeless people, giving people guaranteed income so they can feed themselves, relieving debt.
The fact is that the pandemic proves what is also the central lesson of the climate change crisis: that we cannot survive as individuals, because my well-being is intimately intertwined with the well-being not just of my neighbor, but of people on the other side of the world. And so the only response must be one of redestributing the wealth and resources of the planet not for profit, but for well-being and nourishing, and acting in solidarity, not competition, with each other at a planetary scale.
The Hottest August is both epic and intimate, and ambitious. What was a key challenge you had to overcome in making the film?
Figuring out how to structure this film, given that it is a portrait of a place and time rather than a drama with an inherent story arc, was one challenge. I really wanted to create a tapestry of insights, encounters, observations and moods, one that could build towards an argument or set of provocations rather than simply deliver information or plot pivots.
It was also important that we offer enough so that the film has something to say, without overwhelming our experience of these scenes and interviews with my own interpretation of them. I wanted to leave room for audience members to bring to the film their own memories, dreams, analysis, experiences, and feelings, and so that took some delicate work in the edit room.
How did you gain the trust of all the different people, the characters, you put in your film?
In some ways, it was both simple and yet, also so difficult. I just asked them real questions and made it clear that I was honestly interested in the answers. I think people can tell when they are truly being listened to – and, in fact, feel like they are not listened to in much of their daily lives, whether from bosses or landlords or politicians. So I just made sure to communicate that I was asking honest questions, that I wasn’t there to project onto anyone what I wanted them to be, and that I cared about what people had to say. And that, it seems, is enough. People really opened up, which is for me the great gift of making a film like this.
There are so many types of New Yorkers represented in your film, and of course New Yorkers often are open to expressing opinions. Could you have made this film anywhere else?
I think this film could have been made anywhere else, in the sense that it’s at its core a film about the diverse lives that co-exist and inhabit what can feel like very different realities while sharing space. This is about how people compose a society, and the ways in which we feel our inter-connectedness with others, or not, through the infrastructures and environments we share — whether that’s a transit system, or the rental market, or the weather.
But of course, New York has some important particularities. It’s a place of massive inequality, incredible density, and enormous diversity. It’s surrounded by water, and that water is rising. And the role of its financial sector plays an enormous part in the global economy. So there is a great deal of significance to New York City, even while this film is also just about how people share a city and navigate themselves in relation to their neighbors.
What would you have loved to have kept in your film that for reasons of time had to be cut out?
I would have liked to include more about parents who are downloading their own anxieties onto their children in a variety of ways, including very protective, expensive schooling (for those that can afford that). I would have also liked to include more instances that show people coming together to create community, in acknowledging that there is no future in aloneness, and that solidarity and care are everything.
Did you intentionally want the film to have a bit of a sci-fi feel to it at times?
Yes, without being too heavy handed about it. This isn’t a science fiction film, per se, but real life has its own sci-fi qualities, and we wanted to draw those out. I think we can get so stuck in seeing what is — the so-called reality all around us, as natural that it also can feel inevitable. We wanted to have moments in the film that dislocated us from that reality in some way, that allowed a new perspective on the strangeness and constructedness of the way we live. We are, after all, just animals crawling around a planet in the galaxy.
So some of the experimentation with a sci-fi feeling was really about giving viewers permission to look at ourselves as a time-traveler, or a space-traveler, might.
Do you have a scene in your film that is especially a favorite or made the most impact on you?
They are all my favorites! Of course, I love the animals that make their little cameos. I love L’Rae’s honesty at the beginning of the film when she admits she worries about being lonely. I love Ayo’s willingness to walk around Brooklyn in his Afronaught suit. And I can’t help it – I love that little guppyfish in the tank.
What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?
Le Joli Mai – Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme
Handworth Songs – Black Audio Film Collective
O’er the Land – Deborah Stratman
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Find your people. Make sure you have friends, collaborators, champions who understand and support what you want to do and why. There is so much rejection baked into this work at every stage, and for those of us who have any capacity for self-doubt, that rejection can sometimes be crushing, as well as disillusioning. Don’t listen to the received wisdoms about “how a film has to be” – be brave as well as generous, and find people who enable your own excitement.
What film/project(s) are you working on next?
I’m in early stages on two projects – one, an all archival film about the radical art critic John Berger, and another a feminist portrait of men’s groups.