Edward Norton-produced documentary One October captures a world on the brink of change
In the opening frame of documentary One October, a Harper’s Monthly quote from 1856 fills the screen: “New York is never the same city for more than a dozen years altogether.” Throughout the ensuing 56 minutes, the interviewer, WFMU radio show host Clay Pigeon, delves into that concept and examines how the Big Apple’s unremitting transitional nature affects its loyal inhabitants but also asking greater questions about when change is good — and when it’s not so good — in general.
The film, directed by Rachel Shuman and executive produced by Edward Norton, offers a snapshot of NYC on the cusp of the Obama-McCain election. Shot entirely during October 2008, it was a time of significant shifts. Gentrification found its stride in the city, bulldozing many of the more urban and authentic neighborhoods with little regard for anyone or anything that fell in its path.
The film features Pigeon and Shuman visiting diverse neighborhoods to poll a wide spectrum of New Yorkers about how they expect their lives to be altered by this new wave of renovation, as well as their opinions on the upcoming election. There’s the newly arrived 23-year-old from Illinois who’s swept up in the charm of the city, runs on the Brooklyn Bridge, plans to vote for Obama, and “loves” New York. There’s the transgender woman who believes New York is the one place that accepts her for who she is. But then there are also those who barely recognize parts of the city anymore, who fear they’ll soon be priced out of their neighborhoods as the “mallification” sets in. One single mother in Harlem is terrified she’ll lose her home to gentrification.
Pigeon also talks to a homeless man about his living situation and asks him very frankly if he’s ever considered suicide. Yes, he’s attempted it, but lived to tell the tale. Since the man has answered honestly, he requests the same honesty from Pigeon. The host obliges, sharing his financial woes and concerns about how long he can go on working on a radio show, the work for which he says he’s unpaid but finds highly rewarding.
It’s Pigeon’s sincere approach here and throughout the documentary that holds the audience’s attention. His dulcet tone and affable manner allow him to get close to people, gain their trust, and encourage their openness. That, in turn, draws viewers in until we’re as absorbed in each varying yet valid opinion as he is. It’s always evident from both the filmmakers and their interview subjects that they love New York despite the fact that they’re feeling a little uncertain about the future of their city — and the country as a whole with the impending presidential election.
At a point when the U.S. was wading through the worst financial crisis since 1929, there seems to be a glimmer of hope for some who are desperately seeking a savior to deliver them from trying times. For others, there’s a feeling of preemptive disappointment before change is even attempted because they’ve learned from the past that revolutions rarely come in the way we imagine them. Watching this movie in 2018, that hopelessness foreshadows the grossly unsettling political times to come. To think, New Yorkers were worried then.