'Uncertain' Doc Directors Hope Viewers Will "Look at People Openly and Reflectively"
The film, which follows three residents of the small town on the border of Louisiana and Texas, is now in theaters after winning the New Documentary Director Award at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.
In the above exclusive clip from Uncertain, a documentary about the small town of the same name on the Texas-Louisiana border, viewers are told that the area is so remote that, in order to find it, you either have to be lost or know that you're headed there. So how did the directors behind the film — now in select theaters after playing on the festival circuit in 2015, where it won the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award at the Tribeca Film Festival — find the area?
According to director Ewan McNicol, there's a third way to find Uncertain — by chance. Or he and fellow director Anna Sandilands were lost, he jokes.
Five years ago, the two were filming a short film in Louisiana and had a few days off, so they looked at a map to see what was nearby.
"We literally, somewhat by chance, saw this body of water on the state line, and when we looked closer, we ended up finding the town called Uncertain," explains McNicol. "We started researching it and found that no one was certain how Uncertain got its name. So we thought, 'Well that's an interesting premise for a short film. Why don't we drive there?' "
Once they got there, though, they met some of the town's 94 residents and found "a much bigger story" than the origins of the town name.
Amid President Donald Trump's rhetoric about "forgotten" parts of America, Uncertain is a largely unknown part of the country. But McNicol and Sandilands say that they didn't have a political agenda in making the film and didn't even discuss politics with their subjects.
And now, as divisions from the 2016 election continue to be discussed, the Uncertain directors hope viewers will see their film as an opportunity to get to know its subjects and town fully, outside of any partisan identification.
Read on to learn how the filmmakers settled on the three people featured in the film, what they're doing now and what McNicol and Sandilands hope viewers will take away from the doc.
How'd you decide which people to focus on?
Sandilands: We actually met Henry on the first day, and we organized to go out fishing with him early the next morning. The first place we see Henry in the film is that first morning. We went out on the lake with him, and as we were fishing, he allowed us to film, and we just chatted about why we were there. He was so candid and so disarming that we knew immediately that Henry alone would make an extraordinary film. After we finishing fishing with him that morning, we asked the town mayor if anybody else did interesting things in town, along the lines of fishing, or what other activities there were. And he said, "Oh, well, you've got to meet 'pig man.' " And that turned out to be Wayne Smith, the hog hunter, who chases after Mr. Ed for the entire film. So we met up with Wayne. And of course, these things are easy to do when it's a town of 90 people; you just walk across the street, knock on the door and have a conversation. Wayne said, "I'll show you how hog-hunting works. I'll show you where I hunt." And we went out deep in the woods with him. And there we talked about what his circumstances were. So both Wayne and Henry were immediate, within our first two days. And then we met Zach a few days later, six days later. He seemed very much to us sort of the town jester. He's the one who sort of sees it all really clearly, knows his circumstances and his neighbors' circumstances very well and sees it all with quite a lot of humor. And because he was so intelligent and open with us, he felt very clear to us as well, too.
McNicol: I think, at the time, we also realized that these three men were at different phases of their lives. It seemed interesting to us. Zach, he kind of represented the future. And then there was Wayne, who is of middle age and very much represented the present. And Henry, who was in the twilight of his life, in some ways, represented the past. We soon realized that having those three men together, collected and interwoven in this narrative, felt cohesive for the story.
This film was on the festival circuit two years ago. Have you checked in with the subjects and the town in that time or more recently?
Sandilands: Before the film premiered at Tribeca, we went down to Uncertain and screened it just for the people who are in the film — not in Uncertain, because they don't have a theater, but in the next town. It was important for us that everyone who was in the film got to be the first to see it. … Wayne and Henry and Zach, we brought them to the festival, to New York. And that was an amazing experience for us, to do that. Now that it's having its commercial, theatrical premiere, we wanted to do the same again.
McNicol: We screened it last night (March 6) in Marshall, in East Texas, which is about 20-25 miles from Uncertain. And we had about 700 people come to the screening [including from other towns]. They opened up additional theaters to accommodate the 700 people. It was lovely. It was great to see everyone and almost like a bit of a reunion.
How are they doing?
McNicol: They're doing well. Henry is still very much his own man and he, healthwise, is good, and he's still fishing. The weed, the giant Salvinia on the lake, disrupts how much fishing he can do, but he's still there, and he seems the same man. … Wayne, the hog-hunter, has actually left Uncertain, and he's moved to an area north of Dallas in a town called Telephone. … He is, with a couple of people, experimenting with living off the grid, and he's trying to survive with hunting and see how they can exist outside of what he calls the monetary system. … Zach … moved back to Uncertain. He seems very content, and he's now in charge of the roads. He's also been considering running for the Libertarian party.
What do you hope people take away from film, apart from an understanding of Uncertain and the specific people you feature in the doc?
Sandilands: When we started the film, we had no agenda, and it took us quite a lot of time filming to know where we were really headed. It was just purely based on our curiosity and the enchantment with these people who are different to us in really compelling ways. And it's interesting because, especially over this last year, as the nation has changed, and in some really seismic ways, our relationship with these people and our understanding remains exactly the same. It's become sort of a touchstone because, although, again, we look at this cultural shift and seemingly everything has changed, really nothing has changed. Our understanding of one another and our ability to connect with one another remains exactly the same. That was really, for us, kind of our chief goal of the film, originally. And certainly now, there is this other layer on top of the film and another lens with which to see the film and perhaps some extra resonance as a result of that. But, for us, that's sort of the beauty of this kind of filmmaking. If you aren't pushing some sort of agenda or a theory that you want to prove, then a film like this can be more reflective and illuminating and stand as culture shifts. And I think that's really important to us as filmmakers. There's still so much room for films like Uncertain, which are only aimed towards us better understanding or knowing one another. We want to look at people openly and reflectively, rather than with agendas or with some partisanship.
Do you have a sense of where these people would've fallen in the divide in the country over the past year or how they've been affected by larger cultural and political developments?
Sandilands: There are some Democrats in that bunch, but probably the balance are Republicans. If we had made this film today, that probably would've been something that we touched on with one another because it's become everybody's focal point, but not that long ago, it was about more important things, like how we are like one another. So, in a way, we've not bothered to circle back with one another about those things. We're all friends now, and we talk at Christmas. … And that's how we like to keep it among us.
McNicol: We didn't really have political discussions. It was only seeing Zach yesterday, who very strongly believes in the Libertarian party, [when] we had our first political discussion. Otherwise, the process of making this film and where we started was never framed through a political discussion.
Sandilands: Maybe if we all set politics aside for a minute and reminded ourselves of what it takes to connect to one another, [then] we could actually get to somewhere more fruitful than trying to push against one another.