Three incredible stories are profiled in this thematically rich portrait of a small town on the brink of extinction.
Uncertain (Hot Docs Review)
It’s hard not to get immediately pulled into Uncertain by its first frames. Directors Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands (with McNicol also handling cinematography) shoot around Caddo Lake, a gorgeous area feeling like the textbook definition of “Southern Gothic.” With old, dilapidated houses lined up on the lakeside, barren trees sticking out of the water from every direction, and a nonstop cacophony of every insect and creature in and around the lake, Caddo Lake feels frozen in time. It’s a gorgeous location, one where nature appears to have easily won its battle against man. It’s the kind of place that’s beautiful in its ugliness and decay, and a rich area to explore beyond the lake.
McNicol and Sandilands settle down in the tiny town of Uncertain, population 94. It sits right on the border between Louisiana and Texas beside Lake Caddo, and is so small the town sheriff says “You have to be lost to find it.” Uncertain has a high poverty rate, and a crisis develops once a weed starts rapidly growing across the lake, choking out wildlife and threatening to destroy the lake’s fragile ecosystem. It threatens to cripple the town even further, considering their main source of income comes from fishing.
Some filmmakers might want to approach Uncertain as an environmental documentary, with a focus on efforts to try and save a town that’s been long forgotten. McNicol and Sandilands go in a far more interesting direction instead, using the lake as a thematic backdrop for three men living in Uncertain. Zach, 21, is a skinny young man with little to do in Uncertain. He lives alone ever since he had to commit his mother psychiatric care, and spends his days either playing video games or drinking at a bar. He’s diabetic, with an insulin pump attached to his body, and he can see a short life ahead of him if he keeps drinking and scraping by.
The second subject, Wayne, moved to Uncertain with his girlfriend while in recovery. He has a sordid past, with over a decade spent in prison. He’s changed his life, gotten in touch with his Native American roots, and now spends his time hunting boars. Wayne, like most people profiled in Uncertain, is full of quirks. Because he’s a convicted felon, according to Texas law he can only own guns from the 1800s, meaning he can only hunt with old rifles. The final person profiled is Henry, a 74-year-old fisherman. He lives alone, having recently lost his wife of over 50 years. It’s another major loss for Henry, who also lost his daughter years earlier in a tragic accident. The presence of the dangerous weed in the lake means he can’t fish as much as he’s used to, and spends most of his time with either his family or his new girlfriend.
What McNicol and Sandilands discover in this small town is remarkable. Zach, Wayne and Henry, one young, one middle-aged, and one in the twilight years of his life, have similar stories of loss, tragedy, and addiction, and all three are incredibly compelling people. Zach is a young, nerdy guy trying to find his own purpose in life, and his desire to move on to something fulfilling is endearing; Wayne is incredibly upfront about his own failures and the struggle to pave a new path in his life, and it can be heartbreaking to watch; and Henry is utterly fascinating, a man who simply wants to live life as he wants to after going through so much heartbreak. The fact that all three reside within the same small area, with lives that complement each other so beautifully feels like a magical combination McNicol and Sandilands were lucky enough to come across.
It’s not just the three subjects that make Uncertain such a wonderful documentary. McNicol and Sandilands find a way to, on a greater scale, give an incredible sense of what it’s like to live. The film has an innate understanding of how life unfolds in a continuous flow, rather than something structured or narrative. The struggle all three men face in their lives is ongoing, and will stay with them up to the end. If Zach is trying to get on the road to recovery, and Wayne is trying to stay on it, then Henry represents what it feels like to finally make it to the end of that road, with the knowledge that his end is coming soon.
The film gradually reveals more about the darker sides of each subject. They’re never treated as shocking reveals. They’re things that just happened to these people, the sorts of major events that can steer someone in a direction they never expected. All three acknowledge what’s happened to them and how it impacted their lives, but they also show an awareness that there’s nothing they can do but move on, and try to make things better for themselves. They’re men haunted by their pasts, yet focused on creating a future that they can look forward to. They need to move on because they have no choice. Time won’t wait for them.
Through all of this, Uncertain seamlessly weaves in the lake’s environmental troubles as a thematic tissue connecting these stories together, with the weed serving as a symbol of the darkness threatening to drag these men down, whether it’s alcoholism, drug addiction or something else. After finishing their portraits of Zach, Wayne and Henry, McNicol and Sandilands end with a small scene involving a scientist trying to kill off the weed in the lake. It is a perfect ending. Uncertain sets its sights on a small, forgotten town on the brink of death, and finds a beauty and hope within, something surprisingly human amidst a landscape that looks anything but. It’s a discovery worth celebrating.