'Uncertain': Hot Docs Review

Uncertain Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Lucid Inc.

Uncertain Still - H 2015

This remarkable observational documentary is exotic in the best sense

Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands' documentary chronicles the lives of three troubled inhabitants of Uncertain, Texas, pop. 94.

It's a good bet that you'll never find yourself visiting Uncertain, Texas. After all, this small town on the Texas/Louisiana border, population 94, is so remote that its sheriff admits, "It's not on the way to anywhere…you have to be lost to find it." Fortunately, filmmakers Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands did manage to find it; the result is Uncertain, their fascinating documentary chronicling the lives of three of its troubled inhabitants.

The town provides its own built-in metaphor in the form of Caddo Lake, whose fishing opportunities provide its principal source of income. The lake is slowly being overrun by a botanic parasite that threatens to destroy its fish population, with a local scientist struggling to solve the problem by introducing weevils to battle the syndrome known as salvinia.

It's a particular concern for 74-year-old Henry, who makes his living as a tour guide and fisherman. Speaking in a Southern drawl so thick his dialogue is accompanied by subtitles, Henry slowly reveals his story, which includes the death of his young daughter in a car accident many years earlier and recently suffering the loss of his wife of 50 years. He's also still struggling with the memory of having shot and killed a man who was angrily accusing him of being an "Uncle Tom" because of his friendships with whites and his decision to send his children to a newly integrated school.

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Also coping with his violent past is Wayne, an ex-con and recovering addict who killed a young man in a drunken driving incident. He now spends much of his time in a Captain Ahab-like obsession with killing "Mr. Ed," a giant wild boar who he regards as his sworn enemy. Spending his nights outfitted in camouflage gear and tracking his prey with motion sensors and night vision goggles, he's limited by Texas law to using only 19th-century era rifles. We also hear from his son, who ruefully comments about his father, "We've had threesomes with women together…instead of teaching me how to play baseball, he taught me how to smoke dope."

21-year-old Zach also struggles with addiction. So severely diabetic that he's forced to use an insulin pump attached to his body, he nonetheless continues to drink heavily even, observing that "it'll put its boot on your back." Living alone after having had his emotionally ill mother committed to a mental institution, he's been informed by his doctor that if he doesn't mend his ways he'll be on dialysis by 30 and dead by 35.

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Beautifully photographed by co-director McNicol, the film is a hauntingly evocative portrait of its Southern Gothic-infused milieu. Treating its central characters with a refreshing lack of condescension, it dispassionately observes their eccentricities and movingly conveys their internal struggles. Each emerges as a deeply sympathetic figure, including Wayne, who at point grudgingly admits, "As much as I hate to say this, but I've been outsmarted by this hog many times." In a moment that doesn't at all seem staged for the camera, he goes to visit the grave of the young man he killed while driving drunk. It's clear that he's been there many times.

Cannily interweaving its personal stories with a vivid depiction of an eco-system on the verge of collapse, Uncertain marks an outstanding feature debut for its documentarians.

Production: Lucid, Inc.
Directors/screenwriters/producers: Ewan McNicol, Anna Sandilands
Director of photography: Ewan McNicol
Editors: Marco Perez, Ewan McNicol
Composer: Daniel Hart

Not rated, 81 min.