Certain nonfiction and experimental cinema forebears were quite present during the 2019 iteration of the Camden International Film Festival, which exhibited numerous films that were far more than mere tributes to their predecessors but proudly wore citations on their surfaces anyway. The program “Shorts X: The Hermit”, for instance, included two separate works, Ellie Ga’s Gyres (1-3) (2019) and Sky Hopinka’s Lore (2019), both assembled in a manner that directly evokes Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) (1971). Yet another film also stood as an overarching influence on this year’s program, at least within the relatively small group of movies I was able to see: Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch’s 1961 film Chronicle of a Summer, which, per its accurate back-cover description, “interview[s] a group of Paris residents in the summer of 1960—beginning with the provocative and eternal question ‘Are you happy?’ and expanding to political issues… giv[ing] us a document of a time and place with extraordinary emotional depth.” During a conversation following the screening of her film The Giverny Document (Single Channel) (2019), artist Ja’Tovia Gary noted that the person-on-the-street segments of her film were influenced, at least in part, by Morin and Rouch’s picture. And one need only watch a few minutes of Brett Story’s The Hottest August (2019), which also played at Camden, before realizing that it seeks to give us the same kind of “document” that Chronicle once did: Produced in New York City circa August 2017, the film moves back and forth between wordless cityscape images and direct-to-camera interview segments, looking to capture the perspective of both residents and the literal physical locations as they all experience a kind of trauma (and while the title suggests that said trauma is climate-related, many of the interviewees would and in some cases really do beg to differ, resulting in a film where the participants seem to argue with one another even as they never actually meet). “Part of what’s inspiring for me about Chronicle of the Summer and Le Joli Mai (1963) is that they see ordinary people, strangers in the city, as sources of interesting insight,” Story told Film Comment, “and I feel that way as well.”
Story is often heard from offscreen, asking pointedly basic questions to mostly local subjects about their lives, their fears, and their general feelings on the subject of “the future.” Not all of the interviews prove engrossing on their own, but some do—one young person who literally skates by to correct some others who just spoke prior is a notable highlight—and besides, that’s alright, since the focus is quite emphatically more about the totality of the space than any one person. To wit certain general statements are heard repetitively—such as people talking about their ongoing job searches, or people alluding to, often without outright committing to, deeply-held criticisms regarding the role of immigrants in the American workforce—with those repetitions introducing various implications as to where people’s attentions truly lie while that larger, cosmic threat beams down on them. The film, eventually, is more experiential than anthropological, more time capsule than scientific study. Which is a curious thing, a time capsule framed like this: It seems certain to me that Story’s film will emerge a far more interesting work of art in 10, 20, or 30 years, or more, than it is right now, in 2019—and that very quality in some way counteracts the film’s inherent skepticism about where we may be three or four or five or six decades from now, complicating the work even further. I would not dare reveal the actual details of The Hottest August’s last image, but I will say that it reminded me of photographs depicting the bodies preserved under ash in the ruins of Pompeii. And in many ways that is exactly how this deceptively grandiose film object frames itself—as a record to be salvaged from a societal collapse, if fate has it that people who care are left around to salvage it.
THE HOTTEST AUGUST, PROGRAMMED BY THE DOCYARD, PLAYS AT THE BRATTLE THEATRE ON MON 10.7 AT 7PM. DIRECTOR BRETT STORY WILL PRESENT THE FILM AND PARTICIPATE IN A Q&A FOLLOWING THE SCREENING. FOR MORE INFORMATION, SEE BRATTLEFILM.ORG OR THEDOCYARD.COM.