Review: Uncertain dir. Ewan McNicol & Anna Sandilands

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The small, 94 resident town of Uncertain lies discreetly hidden in the depths of Texas. In Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands’ documentary, we’re offered a glimpse at the lives of these people living on the fringe, and their tiny, self-contained community.

Although completely real accounts, the three men featured in Uertain feel like they were plucked straight out of a work of fiction. Enter Wayne, a hunter and former drug addict obsessed with hunting down a gigantic hog to distract him from the pain of his past, Henry, river boat guide who’s lost his wife of fifty years and attempts to rebuild it now with a new woman (to his children’s discontent), and Zach, a young tattooed man attempting to leave Uncertain and build a better life for himself out there.

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These mens’ lives alone each make for fascinating stories by themselves, but framed against an even greater danger that lurks in their small town, gives them a kind of urgency. Troubled waters are afoot as an invasive weed threatens to completely destroy the Caddo Lake’s ecosystem, but the town’s inhabitants have no choice but to live each day one at a time, while a local ecologist educates the public and attempts to solve the problem with a breed of weevils that will kill off the weeds (himself a fascinating and quirky personality)

McNicol and Sandiland seem to respect the lake with a kind of sacred reverance, and in fact, treat the entire town with a tenderness in the way they pay attention to the details – there’s a particular calm and beauty in the way we see the water parting as Harry rides down the lake. Being a small town, Uncertain is the furthest thing from a city one can imagine, and there’s a feral, unbridled joy captured in the directors’ shots, emphasising the wild isolation in Wayne’s hunting outpost as he watches the hogs run through the woods.

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Against the ticking lifespan of the lake, our three interviewees’ lives are given greater importance. Zach more than ever needs to leave, the town almost certainly in a state of decay, and he eventually manages to get to Austin on just a hundred dollars, before failing to maintain a job and falling into life threatening alcoholism. In his interviews, there’s a sense of the hopelessness he feels, a disenfranchisement with society and feeling of not belonging, and he finds solace in beer and underground, almost spiritual, rap music gigs. There’s a desperation to the claustrophobia he experiences from living in the small town, a gallant battle against the cards fate deals him at birth while still at risk of being brought down constantly.

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Speaking of the spiritual, Harry loses himself in church, a sanctuary of praise and joy against the naysayers. He want to help the small black community and pushes for them to get educated, but is shunned for his ‘white people ideals’. One feels that you could spend a lifetime listening to his story while sat on his riverboat, the endless frustration of his good intentions pit against literally everyone else.

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As for Wayne (my personal favourite character), although cutting an imposing figure at first – a big man covered in tattoos shooting at hogs, the layers are eventually peeled back to reveal a much more sympathetic character. One of the first scenes we see is of him butchering a hog, before sneaking a bit of meat to his overweight dachschund while his girlfriend isn’t looking. Wayne’s obsession with shooting the giant hog seems quirky at first, a real dedication to the craft setting up nightly stakeouts, and even blaming alien spacecraft for failure from time to time, but all of this is a front, a distraction from his drug addled history and regrettable mistakes. His narrative revolves around the journey he took to allay his guilt, and ultimately comes out stronger, a changed man.

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McNicol and Sandilands have a keen eye for the comedic amidst the drama of the town, and often, they eke out and catch their interviewees on the lighter side. The environmentalist for example, reveals that he’s been raising a wild raccoon that visits nightly for dinner that even ends up sleeping beside their family dog. Uncertain is a deft character driven work that offers plenty of insight into life on the fringe towns of America; perfectly normal people but saddled with their own set of problems, and getting through it one day at a time. Not all is lost though, and each character is given the semblance of hope in the end, in addition to the weevils starting to make swift work of the invasive weed, and perhaps there is still a future left for the town of Uncertain.

Uncertain is released in the UK on 10 March and plays at the ICA

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