Sandilands captures ‘Uncertain,’ small-town America

One of the most evocative documentaries looks at a slowly dying rural community on the boarder of Texas, a town appropriately named Uncertain. When and if they can, young people leave to find jobs in neighboring urban area (although three hours from Louisiana, nothing is too close) and due to an increasing ecological crisis, the town’s integral fish and game economy is at high risk.

The town is also home to three generations of men: lifelong resident Henry, middle-aged hunter Wayne, and a young adult named Zak. With documentary partner Ewan McNicol, Director Anna Sandilands made her feature documentary debut with Uncertain, an atmospheric, character-driven film about modern masculinity, redemption, and one of America’s forgotten communities.

Lesley Coffin: What initially brought you to the town of Uncertain and made you believe there was potential for a documentary? Were you drawn to making a film about the ecological crisis or examining the lives of people who live in such an isolated area?

Anna Sandilands: We weren’t thinking of either of those things. We were filming in Louisiana for a short film called The Roper, about a calf roper. And started looking around to see if there were other areas we should go to and see what’s really going on around here. And when we looked on the map and saw that there is a town called Uncertain, we thought, “How would a town get a name like that?” And we thought it might make an interesting short film. So we drove there, about three hours, and we saw the Church of Uncertain, the Town Hall of Uncertain, and it struck us as kind of funny. And then we started to talk to people who lived there, asking if they knew how they got that name. And no one was certain, which made the premise all the more interesting. So the very next morning we went out fishing with Henry Lewis, one of the three men featured. And when the film first opens, with Henry out on that misty lake that was our first morning with him. And we were so compelled by him as a person and personality. He had such extraordinary stories to tell us, these perfect strangers. The next day we met Wayne, the hog hunter, and had a similar experience with him. He’s this very honest, open, forthright fellow. So after we met both Henry and Wayne we thought there was far more here than a short film about how a town gets its name. It became a very character-driven film.

Lesley Coffin: What made you select the three men you would focus the film’s narrative around?

Anna Sandilands: When we met Wayne, we had that similar moment with Henry. We asked how hog hunting is done and he was willing to really show us and become our guide. He took us probably 10 miles into the deep, deep woods to his hunting stand. And I asked, innocently really, why shoot with black powder guns. I thought maybe it was about good sportsmanship, but it struck me as really inefficient. And he said, ‘I can tell you the truth or I can tell you what I tell everyone else.’ And I said, ‘I hope you’ll tell me the truth.’ And he came right out and said ‘I’m a convicted felon.’ And the first thing that went through my head was, ‘Oh no, we are 10 miles in the woods with this man.’ But then he told us the circumstances and we were so taken with how candid he was. And that same thing happened with Henry. Right away we thought these were two men worth following. And it wasn’t until our second trip that we met Zak, and he’s one of only a handful of young people that live in Uncertain. We initially saw him as a bit of a court jester, a guy who sees it all pretty clearly and wraps it all up in humor and self-effacement. And we were so happy to find him. And at that point, they started to feel like three generations of the same type of man. Wayne represents the present, Henry the past, and Zak the unknown future. So three felt like the right number. We did meet other people, followed them for maybe half a day. But just decided for one reason or another, they just didn’t strike us the same way those three did.

Lesley Coffin: Zak says really early on in his interview, there are no young women around he can date, so he hasn’t had some very necessary socializing in his young life. And because there are so few young people, there’s no push to build up economic prospects in Uncertain. Is there a clear divide between the older residences who are established and the youngsters?

Anna Sandilands: We only met a few younger people in town, and looking at things from their perspective, I can’t blame them for wanting to leave. There isn’t enough for them to do, there aren’t enough people close in age to interact with and build their own sub community. And they just have no real opportunities to work. There are only a handful of places to work in Uncertain, two bars, a corner grocery, and Johnson’s Ranch. Zak mows lawns, which was the best he could do. So the only option he seems to have was to leave. He needed to find a peer group of younger people and job opportunities.

Lesley Coffin: Right after he said “there’s nothing for him here” you cut to Wayne saying “I never dreamed I could have this much” and speaks of the community with such gratitude. And that’s such a huge disconnect for two men who aren’t that far in their age. They are both men still working and growing their personal family life. Why is Wayne’s perspective so dramatically different from Zak’s?

Anna Sandilands: I know what you mean, but the stages of life they’re in are so drastically different. That’s why Zak is the future and Wayne is the present. Zak is trying to get some of what Wayne has found. To live the part of the life he’s at now in Uncertain would be to live a smaller life for Zak. But for Wayne and his girlfriend, now his wife, he had lived a long stretch of time as a rabble-rouser. And at this point in his life, it’s time to be quiet, settle down and pay close attention to the small things in life. For Wayne, and other men around his age, Uncertain is an escape from the chaos their lives were in the outside world. But Zak hasn’t had that opportunity yet. He hasn’t had a taste of what the rest of the world has to offer.

Lesley Coffin: Were they telling you things about their life that they haven’t shared with the rest of the people living in Uncertain?

Anna Sandilands: Henry and Zak’s stories, other people in the community were aware. The town knows about Zak’s medical issues and family history. And Henry was born and raised there, so he’s just always been Henry. Everybody knows him and the circumstances of what happened that one day. Wayne’s a little different, he came to Uncertain. We were so grateful with all three for being so incredibly candid with us and trust they had to leave us to work on the film for a year and a half. Wayne knew we were looking to get crime scene photographs, and sometimes needed his permission, and Wayne said yes without really knowing how we were building the stories. Because their stories were so personal, we wanted them to be the first to see it. So we flew down to Texas, to a neighboring town called Marshall, because Uncertain doesn’t have a theater. And first we just played it for Wayne because he’s so exposed, and then the next morning we played it for Wayne, Henry, Zak, and their closest friends. That was the most important screening we’d ever had, it was so emotional watching all together. Just a few days ago we went back to Marshall to premiere the film in Texas. We had 700 people, and everyone in the community learned the story of Wayne, and he’s been incredibly well-received. Wayne’s heard from a lot of people in the area who are also in recovery, he was flooded after the Q&A who wanted to talk to him. And Henry said during the festival run of the film that he felt like he could start to forgive himself.

Lesley Coffin: Because it took so long to put the film together and you’ve had almost a full year on the festival circuit, did you ever consider going back and including a tag about where they are now?

Anna Sandilands: We get asked how they’re doing now at every Q&A, because that means people really care about them. But when we started, the landscape played such an important part. There’s something mythical and mystical in it, and we wanted to approach telling the film the way you might tell a myth. These three men represent a lot of men, and therefore become mythical in their own ways. And early on I told Ewan, myths don’t have facts or details. So we wanted to approach their stories the same way. We don’t approach the science of what’s going on in the lake, just say enough to let audiences know it is precarious. And we didn’t want to be too specific about time, so to recap and tell the audience what they’ve missed, would go against that initial goal we had. We wanted the audience to feel like they were left in their own sense of uncertainty.

Lesley Coffin: The movie seems to be coming out at the perfect time, because in just the past few months we’ve heard so much about the so-called “fly-over states” and people feeling cut off from the rest of the country. This is a town where people say, if you don’t mean to go there, you wouldn’t even know it existed. They’re so under the radar we don’t know what assistance they receive, what kind of federal or state aid they have, or if they truly are cut off from the rest of the country. Do you feel we aren’t recognizing a true class divide between urban and suburban areas and these rural communities?

Anna Sandilands: There is a vast gulf between the two, and their lives are completely different. When we started filming, it really made us realize how much closer they are attached to nature, and as a result, how much more important their ecosystem is in their everyday life. They see the impact first-hand, right away. And the second thing we noticed is how community-oriented they are. As a small town, they are in each other’s pockets. There are downsides to that, but the upside is they look after one another and help each other out. That isn’t something we see very often in more urban areas of the country. And the other layer is, they’re in Texas and have that fiercely independent spirit. Their local sheriff isn’t even in town, he lives miles away. So if something happens in the town, everyone in the town knows to call Billy, the man with the raccoon, who is their law enforcement. If something breaks, they fix it as a town, they won’t wait for someone to come in. And that’s because they have that Texas spirit of independence, but also because they’re so closed off from resources most other people take for granted. They are more like the towns from 50 or 60 small towns. In terms of resources, Karen at Johnson’s ranch talked about twisting her ankle and how badly she didn’t want to go to the doctor because she doesn’t have insurance. And you talk to her about where you can go for less money, but those places aren’t nearby. When you talk about subsidized healthcare, she would rather have that money in her pocket. She doesn’t want the affordable care act, she would rather not pay that tax and have that money to spend the way she chooses. So when we talk about the services they might not have access to, they also don’t necessarily want them because they see it as taking away money they need to live on.

© Lesley Coffin (3/17/17) FF2 Media

Photos: Uncertain, now available in limited theatrical release:

Photo Credits: Lucid Inc.


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