Among the many New Yorkers the filmmaker Brett Story encounters throughout her travels in the city during the summer of 2017, it’s an artist who calls himself an Afronaut who has one of the most prescient observations of where he stands, explaining that he puts on a self-styled spacesuit because by “jumping to the future, we can think more clearly about the past.” These seem to be words Story took to heart in making “The Hottest August,” which in many ways feels as if it’s made from a greater remove than just a year-and-a-half ago, filmed with serene calm and digitally crisp images that are tempered by a fractious postmodern score, feeling cool even if it’s set during the balmiest month of the year.
But it’s the people Story visits that pull you into the present through a series of interviews from Crown Heights to Rockaway Beach that capture a way of life that can seem as if it’ll soon be elusive as thoughts about late-stage capitalism, climate change and automation are left floating in the air. As weighty as the subjects “The Hottest August” tackles are through endearing personal anecdotes, Story has crafted a gentle yet stirring provocation that really opens up the space to think, to be able to take in what’s special about this particular moment in time while the questions about what the future holds, which the filmmaker makes an explicit point of asking everyone, allows reflection that is often shaped by past obstacles and limitations. Story has a remarkable eye for composition, but her ear is equally sharp, listening to folks talk about their aspirations and being able to convey what’s in between the lines – in one instance, a complaint about the sudden emergence of rats in one neighborhood alludes to the gentrification that’s making them only the first to be driven out of their home, and in another, a woman who participates in a community workshop to learn how to be more assertive after witnessing a racially charged incident on the street in the wake of the election of a president whose name she can’t bring herself to say.
There are markers of a specific cultural moment as “The Hottest August” will visit a laundromat where the TV is tuned into coverage of the riots in Charlottesville and the damage from Hurricane Sandy looms large in the minds of those living by the water, but despite that and the presence of some pugnacious subjects that couldn’t be from anywhere else, the film impressively gets its arms around an experience that binds us all, with the abstract of the unknown conjuring very specific and intimate ideas about what makes us nervous going forward while cultivating a sense of community through its setting in a place long recognized as a model metropolis and the tacit notion of a shared space. Although Story is careful not to put rose-tinted glasses on what lies ahead, “The Hottest August” is nonetheless resplendent when it comes to showing people of all walks of life co-existing in the same place and offers hope in demonstrating how our ability to think differently from one another can be seen as a unifying force as much as for separation, setting such a strong example in its own right.
“The Hottest August” will open on November 15th at the BAMCinematek in New York.