“So here we were in the month of August. The year was 2017. The place was New York. Over that month 10,485 babies were born, 4373 deaths mourned, and 200,000 tonnes of garbage collected […] Thousands of the planet’s species had recently gone extinct”, announces a woman’s voice in the opening scene. With shots of the city under a scorching sun and an ominous score, this could have been the beginning of a dystopian sci-fi film à la Soylent Green. But Brett Story’s The Hottest August is very much about our present: climate change, increasing socio-economic inequalities, structural racism. Life in a neoliberal capitalist state, where the individual prevails over the collective, private interests over the common good.
Over 30 days, Story and her crew roamed New York’s boroughs to interview people of all ages, races, genders, classes, and political leanings, asking them about their fears and hopes for the future. Masterful editing weaves their testimonies together into a calm, yet urgent polyphonic documentary that sheds lights on collective anxieties.
A graduate laments over the lack of jobs. A young woman cannot imagine having a child in a world that might not exist 20 years from now. “What future?” defiantly asks a teen in a skatepark. At a 1920s themed party, nostalgia for the past is a way to deflect contemporary worries. Others stay positive, but their inward-looking responses (“I am going to do what I have to and be where I want to be”) are followed by admissions of powerlessness about the state of the world (“as an individual, I can do nothing”). Crammed in a train, people look down and away.
Still, a Black Lives Matter gathering following Charlottesville riots, a citizen’s emotional response to the attack of a muslim woman, and a man’s impassioned defence of Robot Communism shows there is still hope and that people do still care. Avoiding any didacticism or easy-fix solutions, Story invites us to (re)consider how we got to this point, and how we need to re-engage, together, with one another as a society. Circling around the coast where houses are threatened by the rising sea level, an old man reminds us: “we are a part of the animal kingdom”.