Dir.: Anna Sandilands, Ewan McNicol; Documentary; USA 2015, 82 min.
Uncertain is a town of 94 inhabitants that lies on the Texas side of the border with Louisiana. The Sheriff jokes:“You’ve got to be lost to find it.” Rumour has it that the only reason for its existence is that a surveyor made a mistake on the map. But debut directors Anna Sandilands and Ewan McNicol get the most of the gloomy atmosphere of the Bayonne – a heaven for lost souls.
The lake, which supports the town’s fishing industry, has an eerie quality: Southern Gothic, mysteries and forgotten crimes haunt the murky waters. McNicol says “we spent time with the lake like as we would with another character”. But the lake is in peril; it is being invaded by a species of parasitic waterweed, salvinia, which covers the whole water surface, killing the fish and blocking oxygen and light and doubling its surface area every two days. Scientists have found a way to eradicate the prolific weed by introducing weevils but anticipate it will cost the authorities a pretty penny.
The filmmakers follow three Uncertain denizens, all with a skeleton in their cupboard. They seem fitting protagonists in this atmosphere lingering doom. Henry, a man in his seventies, has been coming to terms with getting older and losing his wife. In his hot-tempered youth he killed a man in an interracial contretemps. Like many, Henry relies on the lake for his liveliehood, and a friend states categorically “if the lake dies, the town dies.” Wayne is also a killer who caused the death of a young man while under the influence and is now trying to put the past behind him by going back to his native roots, hunting the local wild boar. His prime target is the leader of the herd, a bull Wayne has christened ‘Mr Ed’. He becomes obsessed with the hog, treating him like a warrior. Zach is perhaps the saddest of the trio: a young man, anorexic, diabetic and alcohol dependent, he dreams about a future in Austin, but his poverty is keeping him in Uncertain. Even when he finally gets away, we see him in hospital being told that he will not see thirty-five if he goes on drinking. Traumatised by a mother who had to be incarcerated in a psychiatric ward, he has even lost any illusions about his future: ”Don’t dream, that’s not how you’re gonna be happy in life. I kinda pushed my dreams aside”.
UNCERTAIN is a respectful non-judgemental study of people living on the margins of US society and the filmmakers really convey this doleful, festering quality – synonymous with the current mood prevailing in the country. AS
UNCERTAIN is at the ICA from 10th March and On Demand from 17th March