Seattle-based filmmakers Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands took one look at the town of Uncertain, population 94, and decided they had to make a documentary about it. “Uncertain” plays at the Northwest Film Forum March 17-19.
It’s a flyspeck of a place on the Texas side of the Tex-Louisiana border. Name: Uncertain. Population: 94. On the shore of a weed-choked lake by the name of Caddo.
We’re talking bayou country, where the cypress trees rising from the water are hung with thick curtains of Spanish moss. It’s as far off the beaten track as it’s possible for a burg to be.
In the words of a local lawman: ”It’s not on the way to anywhere. You’ve either got to know where you’re going, or be lost to find it.”
‘Uncertain,’ a documentary directed by Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands. 80 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Northwest Film Forum, March 17-19.
A long way, to say the least, from Seattle. Yet a pair of Seattle-based filmmakers, Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands, did indeed find it in 2013. They took one look and decided they had to make a documentary about it. Title: “Uncertain.” (Naturally.)
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They own a company named Lucid Inc.; their background is in commercials and short documentaries; and they were in Lafayette, La., making a documentary, “Roper,” about a young African-American calf roper. “We had a few days to spare, and we wanted to explore the area a bit more,” Sandilands said by email. “We pulled out a map and saw a huge natural lake and a little point at the edge of the lake said ‘Uncertain.’ ” Intrigued, they decided to drive over and check the place out. On the lone road through town, they saw the Uncertain Flea Market, the Uncertain Town Hall and the Church of Uncertain.
“We thought it would make a great short film: how a town got a name like Uncertain,” she said.
And then they started talking to locals.
They talked first to a heavyset African-American fisherman named Henry Lewis. He emerged in his boat in the early morning mist, “like Charon, the mythical boatman who ferries souls through purgatory,” said McNicol. He impressed them as a plain-spoken man “without guile. We found that so intriguing.”
The town mayor then suggested they talk to a guy called “the pig man.” That turned out to be Wayne Smith, a burly Native American from the Chickasaw Nation with a Capt. Ahab-like obsession with hunting down a huge wild boar by the name of Mr. Ed.
Shortly afterward, they were introduced to a spindly, multitatted 20-something Caucasian kid named Zach Warren, whose despair as a young person with few prospects stuck in a backwater like Uncertain was deeply felt.
Talking to these men, it quickly dawned on the filmmakers that there was a whole lot more going on in Uncertain than could be covered in a short documentary. So, for the next 18 months, they filmed the trio. They filmed 74-year-old Lewis and his contentious relationship with his family and his much younger girlfriend of whom the family heartily disapproved. They filmed Warren as he left town to seek a new life in Austin. And off and on for nine months, they sat with Smith in his hunter’s blind while he tried again and again to shoot the surprisingly elusive tusker Mr. Ed with a black-powder muzzle loader.
Why the vintage firearm? Early in filming, Smith revealed to the duo that he was an ex-con with a violent past who was forbidden by Texas law to possess a conventional rifle. However, the law said a muzzle loader was legally OK. That disclosure came when they were hiking to his blind. “Here we were 10 miles into the woods with a guy wearing a hog-tooth necklace and a massive knife strapped to his thigh,” Sandilands said. Or as she put it more succinctly: “Oh hell!”
Since its completion, “Uncertain” has been shown around the U.S. and, in 2015, won the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award. It opens for a three-day run at the Northwest Film Forum starting Friday, March 17.
Filming “Uncertain” made a lasting impression on the filmmakers. “For both of us, the single most memorable experience was our first day in Uncertain,” Sandilands said. “We were overwhelmed by the sense of place and the people. It was entirely unexpected and completely enchanting. We didn’t want to leave.”