Roam around a big city and ask random people questions about their lives and times — it seems a simple premise for a documentary but it’s not so easy to pull off. Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin did so in 1960 with “Chronicle of a Summer,” as did Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme in 1962 with “Le Joli Mai.” And now Brett Story joins them with “The Hottest August.”
It is the August of 2017, and the city is New York. Unlike “Chronicle of a Summer,” which is haunted by the past catastrophe of the Holocaust, and “Le Joli Mai” which confronts the just-concluded Algerian war of independence, Story’s film ponders the future and the probability of environmental disaster and financial collapse.
Few in the film directly acknowledge these looming threats. One woman whose Staten Island house was flooded during Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, dismisses the notion of climate change, claiming that it’s just something that earned Al Gore a fortune.
The only people who seem to be optimistic are those who are wealthy and privileged, like the hedge fund manager showing off his art collection; he praises property ownership as the best economic system — especially if everybody owned property. But a young woman who just graduated with a degree in environmental studies says she can’t find a job, because the Environmental Protection Agency is downsizing. And a 60-year-old woman wonders where she will end up living, since she doesn’t own a home. “I don’t worry about climate change,” she says. “There’s nothing I can do about it.”
Not just fear of the future but also uneasiness about racism, immigration, and greed lie just below the surface. News reports on the neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., play on a TV in a laundromat but are ignored. Drinking buddies at a bar try to avoid talking about politics but one can’t help complaining about how certain people have lots of children so they can collect more money from welfare. “I like to call it resentment,” he explains. “Instead of racism.”
Far from being a mere collection of person-on-the street interviews, the film generates suspense, irony, and unexpected insights with its expert editing and mise-en-scene. An inexplicable image will appear and make sense or take on a different meaning after a camera movement or a cut reveals what lies outside the frame. When a man with a ladder jumps into a marsh, his purpose is unclear until the scene cuts to him visiting a nest of endangered ospreys. And a dispute erupting during a softball game segues to a woman texting in the bleachers next to a white duck.
The subtle sound design, by Ernst Karel, from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, evokes an atmosphere of dystopian dread, while some of Story’s images recall the bizarre oddities seen in the documentaries of Werner Herzog. An example of the latter is a man walking around in a homemade spacesuit telling people that he is an African-American astronaut from the future visiting the present day. He has come in search of ways to escape the hard times to come. Judging from “The Hottest August” such solutions might be hard to find.
“The Hottest August” will screen Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre as part of the DocYard series. Director Brett Story will attend in person for a Q&A following the screening.