One October tells the story of New York City in October of 2008 through the lens of filmmaker Rachel Shuman.
New York City is notoriously hard to pin down. Eight and a half million people and a few hundred years of recorded history make it impossible to capture its full scope in one attempt. Instead, the upcoming documentary One October rises to the challenge with a novel approach: Rather than attempt to tell a sweeping story, Shuman trains her camera on what she calls “a moment”—October 2008—to showcase the city, as it was, those 31 days.
Take yourself back to 2008 for a moment. I initially remembered it as a relatively calm time—especially compared to what the country is currently experiencing. But my memory was poor (and our collective one can be just as flawed). That’s part of what makes One October so compelling. Shuman filmed the city for just one month and edited what she saw till each moment becomes telling. We didn’t yet know who the next president would be, or how bad the 2008 financial crisis would become. Gentrification has always shaped the city, but in 2008, the fault lines between rich and poor would deepen. One October is a narrative time capsule, offering up the gift of hindsight that it turns feels both tellingly ominous and gleefully hopeful.
As the documentary’s man on the street, Clay Pigeon’s interviews effectively humanize the city, one New Yorker at a time. He asks his interviews difficult questions—about their lives, their pasts, and their struggles—in an incisive way that rarely feels invasive. The New York street scenes are a visual treat and tell a story of their own, but Pigeon’s presence makes it feel like you’re getting an insider’s look at part of the city that’s rarely so accessible—its people.
At 56 minutes, One October is a breezy yet somehow unhurried look at a month in the life of New York City. With the tumult of 2008 as its backdrop, the film captures what the city felt like at a pivotal moment in its history, and the nation’s. Clay Pigeon gets the best out of people, and Shuman gets the truth—even if only a moment’s worth—out of her city.
The film premieres at the IFC Theater in New York City May 17 as part of Stranger Than Fiction series. I recently had the opportunity to watch the film and speak with its director, Rachel Shuman. Portions of the interview have been edited for clarity or space.
Samantha Sanders [AE]: How did this film come about? And why choose to focus on 2008?
Rachel Shuman: I was inspired by a Chris Marker film, Le Joli Mai, a portrait of Paris in May of 1962. It was this moment where there was a lot of urban renewal, and they had just signed a peace treaty with Algeria after being at war for eight years. First of all, I just loved the movie, and I was inspired to make a similar portrait of my city.
I wanted to base mine around an election, because I felt like that was a moment that was going to bring a lot of issues to the surface. And the primary reason was that I’d been in New York for 12 or 13 years at that point, and it was just changing in a way where it was becoming unrecognizable to me very quickly. I felt like the pace of the change was much faster than it had been. And I didn’t love the direction the direction it was going.
When I was heavily into pre-production, I didn’t even know who was going to be the Democratic nominee, whether Clinton or Obama, but I thought it’ll be historic either way. So the election is the frame, whereas New York is the subject, but it was just a moment where a lot the themes came together.
AE: Why release it eight years later?
RS: Initially right after I filmed it, I was thinking it had to come out next year. And at the time, I did think it had more to do with the [2008 financial crisis] and Obama, so it was always about the city, but I felt there was a newsworthiness that was of the moment.
But I felt like I needed distance from it. The film doesn’t have a clear narrative, it’s not following one story, per se, it took me awhile to find the film in a way. Then I was starting to see it as a time capsule, as a snapshot. And I thought about how you can only really see change from a distance. And it’s a movie about change, so let’s put it over here for a while and see what happens. I waited and I thought it would be really great to have it come out at the end of Obama’s tenure, as a marker. What’s different? What’s the same? How has the city changed?
So I fixed it to a moment, and gave it enough time pass so you could look back on it.
AE: I’ve only been [in New York] for two years. But I’ve already noticed so many things that are changing just in the short time I’ve been here. So I couldn’t help but notice the notion of everything being cyclical. Even setting it in the fall made it feel that way. Was that intentional?
RS: Yes, at one point, it was called The Fall. With the changing season, and all the animals in the film, I was trying to place this urban habitat within the context of this larger habitat. We’re all creatures living in this same environment. In the way that seasons mark time, fall is so great because of the visual changes you get. We shot every day in October and I was always trying to get the leaves.
AE: How did you decide on Clay Pigeon being your “man on the street”?
RS: I knew I wanted to cast that role. And whereas, in the Marker piece, the narrator is unseen, I was interested in making that [interviewer] be a character. I had a friend who used to have a radio show on WFMU and he told me I had to check out Clay Pigeon’s show. It was love at first listen. This was exactly the kind of person and interviewer I imagined.
AE: How would you describe his interview style?
RS: On the one hand, it’s very down home and friendly and curious—he’s from the Midwest—and I think that his curiosity about people and his love of people and his pleasure in talking to people was so authentic. He’s not afraid to ask difficult questions. One might call them probing or invasive, but people didn’t react that way to him. He immediately goes to the heart of the matter. He’s lived and interesting, complicated life, and I think that he thinks talking about struggles helps other people. He connects on a human level and he has a lot of compassion for people and their stories.
AE: The film has a really tight runtime, but I imagine you had hours and hours of footage. How do you even begin to cull that down?
RS: I’m an editor by trade and I edited it. They call this a mid-length—and I had originally envisioned a full 90-minute feature. There were points where the cut of the film was two-and-a-half hours. It was just a process of whittling down and whittling down and having to leave things behind that I loved. It is tight […] but it’s a portrait of a month. The director’s cut of the Marker film is something like two or two-and-three-quarters of an hour. But audiences are different now. I just felt for the material that I had, I said what I wanted to say.
AE: Can you talk a bit about the process of being both an editor and a director?
RS: I love editing, so I will edit a vérité doc, and I’ve edited films about sports, and I’ve done reality television as a bread-and-butter thing. Even when not it’s not my favorite content, I love editing, so I can find generally I can just dig in and enjoy it. Because I make a living as an editor, it did free me up to make the film I wanted to make, so I wasn’t that concerned about selling it. And I wanted people to love it, but I wanted the freedom to make the film I wanted to make.
AE: What is it about editing that you love?
RS: I have to think about that! It appeals to both sides of my brain. I feel like both a left- and right-brained person. I’m very analytical, very methodical, and detail oriented. I like math and I like rhythm so there’s something about it that appeals to all those parts of me. But I also feel like [editing is] incredibly creative. Even as an editor, when I’m working on somebody else’s project, I feel like I’m offering so much in terms of the feeling someone who is watching it is going to come away with. And I love the psychology of it. Putting myself in the mind of that character: What are they thinking? Would they really do that? I love thinking about how an audience will react and I love working with music and creating moods and emotion. It plays to my creative part of myself, but also my strengths are those analytical abilities.
AE: I think editing is so collaborative. You’re doing it by yourself but you’re constantly interacting with either the person who created the source material or thinking about how the audience is going to feel about it.
RS: I love the collaborative part of it. Although I love doing the editing—that was my favorite part—I relied a lot on consulting editors to come in and be my sounding board. I think the editor/director relationship is so important, so since I didn’t have that, I sought it out.
AE: Were you surprised by the eloquence of the people Clay spoke with? Do you think that was something he was able to pull out of people or do you think that’s just more a reflection of New York? You pull a random cross section of people and you’ll find that?
RS: Of course, in the movie you’re not seeing the people who said no. Otherwise, people were really excited to talk and I think Clay’s style…I think the eloquence maybe even comes from him interrupting people every once in a while. You know if someone goes down a road, he’s good at stepping in and shaping the conversation.
AE: Since one of the other prominent topics discussed in the film is gentrification, what do you think is different between 2008 and now? Is the process speeding up?
RS: Well, I should say that I moved out of the city two years ago so I’m not seeing it on a day to day basis like I used to, though I’m here every week. When I started the film I was really angry and pissed off. Just disappointed and upset by the changes. But I think in making the film I’m starting to recognize that every generation has that “It’s not what it used to be!” I’m sure people in the East Village who were there in the ’60s or ’70s would be like [to me, in the ’90s] “You don’t even know what was here!”
To kids coming out of university today, these are the good old days. Clay mentions that in the movie. There’s something for everyone who comes here. I love it still, but I do think there’s a line that you can cross where literally the ecosystem is no longer habitable and I do think it’s at risk. It sounds cliché but if you lose diversity in the city, you lose what the city is. Who wants to live in this sterile place where everyone is this upper socio-economic level and every corner is a bank?
I was very influenced by Jane Jacobs and her idea of ballet of the city sidewalk and that’s what I fell in love with and honestly that’s what gives [New York City] its spirit. It’s not supposed to be Chipotle, Chipotle, Chipotle, Starbucks, Starbucks, Starbucks. That’s not interesting.
It’s not an activist film, but I hope it encourages people to take action, whether that’s voting or changing zoning laws, and paying attention to neighborhood meetings.
For me, I think that the film is supposed to show you the thread while lifting up all the things I appreciate about it.