Cinematic and yet mesmerisingly subtle, documentary film Uncertain has the viewer completely enthralled from the opening shot. Filmed in the town of Uncertain, Texas, it opens with a view of an eerily still bayou with low light twinkling through trees, and Henry Lewis, one of the films three focal characters, steering his boat through the water. With his expressive face and an accent so incomprehensible that he requires subtitles, Henry – like the scenery – doesn’t seem real, but that’s part of what makes this documentary so bewitching.
“We wanted the audience to experience Uncertain the way we did as outsiders,” explains Ewan McNicol, who co-directed the film with his filmmaking partner Anna Sandilands. The duo also funded the film almost entirely on their own, working alongside their day jobs making ads for brands such as Google, Airbnb, Blackberry. “You start out not understanding the place or the characters, but throughout the film you get to know them.”
The film’s style is minimal on narration, allowing the stories to emerge slowly, giving prominence to the epic natural surroundings. “Our filmic approach came out of the landscape,” Ewan says. “When you arrive, you feel Uncertain is this mythical storylike place, otherworldly, so we decided to portray it that way.”
Ewan and Anna came across Uncertain, a town with a population of just 94 people, when perusing a map for research, and – enticed by its unusual name – decided to investigate . Within days they had met Henry, who took them on a tour of the lake. “It felt like we had gone back in time,” Ewan remembers. Then the mayor suggested they seek out “pig-man” Wayne Smith, the film’s second character, an ex-con obsessed with hunting down a giant hog. “We were a bit nervous going out into the woods with this guy with his nine-inch knife and hog-tooth necklace,” Ewan says. “But he really opened up to us.”
The third focal character is Zach Warren, a lovable 21-year-old diabetic alcoholic whose dire living circumstances makes for some of the saddest moments of the film. Together, the three men represent three generations of this strange town, and highlight an unseen part of America that, thanks to the presidential election, has suddenly come into public consciousness following attention from the media and politics.
“We started this film four years ago before all the chaos of the election, and never intended to advocate a social issue, like many documentaries do now,” says British-born Ewan, “but it does give a non-partisan view of this part of America that both parties are looking to connect with. I think what’s important about film in general is its ability to spotlight marginalised communities, hidden perspectives and unheard voices, and its power to unite a country.”
Having already won a Tribeca Film Festival award and preparing for screening at the ICA and MoMA this month, as well as general download release on 17 March, the film is about to get Ewan and Anna the attention they deserve.
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