There’s something about Southern USA that attracts documentarists. In the tradition of Errol Morris’s Vernon, Florida or, more recently, Sean Dunne’s Florida Man, there’s now Uncertain, by producer/directors Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands. Winner of the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award at Tribeca in in 2015, Uncertain may not feel completely original, but it’s compelling enough to stand on its own.
Uncertain is the name of a small town in Texas, very close to the border of Louisiana, with a population inferior to 100 souls. In the words of its own sheriff, you have to be lost to find it. And, indeed, its geographical location means most of its inhabitants are social pariahs, ex-cons and addicts. There’s Henry, the 74 year old who’s still mourning the loss of his wife a few years before, with a thick Southern accent that deserves subtitles, who killed a man that kept calling him Uncle Tom (because Henry always kept white friends and sent his children to one of the first integrated schools) and who works as a guide on the Caddo Lake; there’s Wayne, an ex-con and ex-addict with native American roots, who is obsessed with killing Mr Ed, a massive hog that keeps outsmarting him, in a Moby Dick style storyline; and then there’s 21 year old Zach, struggling with addiction, who decides to leave Uncertain for Austin, as there’s nothing to do around in his home town.
This is not how we imagine Texas to be, and Uncertain makes sure we also question our own stereotypes about addicts and criminals, as we feel empathy towards everyone on the screen. Nothing on it feels staged – not even when Wayne shows the grave of the kid he killed in a car accident while driving under the influence. Purely observational, the film lets judgements aside, and most of the time it doesn’t even let us be distracted by what its characters say, letting us dwell into the visuals and the sounds around us. Beautifully shot by McNicol, it will be hard to find a more beautiful, atmospheric documentary around.
Its spareness doesn’t always work on its favour, as not all stories are immediately clear, and we as an audience are left to connect the dots when some of these aren’t present. But in an era where we got so used to politically charged, deeply personal documentaries, where the persona of the documentarist can be as important or more than the subject portrayed (we’re looking at you, Michael Moore and Louis Theroux), Uncertain is a welcome human portrait that wants nothing more than to show us the beauty and stories hidden in a small, lost town.
Uncertain is at the ICA from 10th March and on Demand from 17th March 2017.