A new film describes a world whose inhabitants have been broken, but offers the hope that all can be repaired.
UNCERTAIN is at the ICA in London from 10th March and On Demand from 17th March at http://uncertainfilm.com/
"Uncertain” is the story of redemption brought into the lives of three men - and of hope brought to a whole town … and eventually all of humanity. And it is a documentary. A writer of fiction would have been so lucky to have assembled the layered richness of meaning and interpretation we find in this film … and yet as audience, we remind ourselves throughout that the meaning was there in the ordinary lives of the inhabitants of Uncertain, Texas, all ready to be taken, harvested, nurtured into this uncomfortable but ultimately uplifting, mythopoetic tale. And yes, like Paris, there really is a place called Uncertain on the Louisiana border. And that reinforces the powerful lesson at the heart of the film: our world needs hope and redemption; whatever each individual route to it - through science, religion or collective action - the possibility of something better exists here, through our agency and common humanity.
There are moments of uneasiness with the documentary nature of the film - is this cheap voyeurism into the lives of others on the trailer park? But the film is always reminding us that this is not about them, in Uncertain; no: they are us. We can see our whole world in Uncertain, and we are all its inhabitants - look closely into the ordinary anywhere, suggests the film, and you too can build the world into this lesson.
The breathtakingly beautiful opening sequence emphasises that this is the story of the world: first there is swamp and water; then the insistent noise of a powerful machine, a sort of heartbeat, that will start the world going; then in the darkness emerge some humans, some of them making the cries of animals. And finally the camera pans over real human settlement on the edge of swamp - board houses on stilts, a dog on a balcony - to enter the town, announced first by a warehouse labelled “Uncertain, Flea Market”, then another modest wood front labelled “Uncertain Town Hall” and finally a postbox, “Uncertain, Church”. Out of the primeval swamp comes those three pillars of humanity’s cohabitation with nature: commerce, the collective and the spirit. The film announces its grand theme from the outset.
The three men that are the focus of the film all at different points reveal they have problems sleeping - they are not just Uncertain, they are haunted. The big native-American man, an ex-heroin addict with a violent past and the death of young black motorist on his conscience spends his nights in the swampland peering through night-vision sights hoping to kill “Big Ed” (“the Hog with the Horse’s Head” he goes on to intone, ritualising his quest into the rhythmic chant of a prayer) - I call this man “Chief”. One of the cinematic beauties of the film is its use of night-vision footage: sudden cuts into the world of green and black. Just as Chief is pulling the trigger on a hugely sophisticated camouflaged gun to finally get Ed, there is a distant sound and flash. A replay of the night-vision - Chief has all the tech to help him in his quest - shows what Chief can only believe is an alien ship descending, visible only through his special vision equipment.
Chief will eventually work through his nocturnal visions to a realisation of what it was he needed to defeat all along. As Chief slices and roasts pieces of Big Ed, feeding them to friends gathered in the trailer park around the taxidermied head of the fallen beast - he’d finally killed the hog, and so Chief had now become himself the biggest beast in the night woods - he remembers, and, we feel, understands for the first time, the Sioux prayer from his childhood:
Oh, Great Spirit,
whose voice I hear in the winds
and whose breath gives life to all the world, hear me.
I am small and weak.
I need your strength and wisdom.
Let me walk in beauty and make my eyes
ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made
and my ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may understand
the things you have taught my people.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden
in every leaf and rock.
I seek strength, not to be superior to my brother,
but to fight my greatest enemy - myself.
Make me always ready to come to you
with clean hands and straight eyes,
so when life fades, as the fading sunset,
my spirit will come to you
There is a shot of Chief, just after he has killed Big Ed, bulging stomach silhouetted against the setting sun, bandanna tied like every American renegade maverick since Apocalypse Now, when we know for sure that Chief’s obsession with killing Ed was a need to kill what he had himself become. We next see him walking through a cemetery, sobbing, and looking for the young black boy he’d killed in a crash 30 years earlier caused by his inebriation. Chief’s life before Uncertain is sketched out: a once-estranged son who says “I’ve only said Dad like three times in my life” and who explains that between jail terms, he mainly remembered his father for teaching him to cook meth and inviting him to participate in troilist adventures … a violent job in which Chief is shot at and miraculously survives (“I don’t blame them [the shooters] - I would’ve tried to kill me too” explains Chief) ... the life of an addict - “living asleep” as he describes it - followed by the insomniac night-visions of the sinner looking for redemption.
Chief acts out the killing of the big hog that he was - “he has no enemies except for me”, and the forest has to be rid of him, says Chief, to allow the other animals to flourish. The film cuts to night-vision shots of affectionate raccoons, sauntering deer, rabbits … a whole disney cast that hardly makes another appearance in the film’s more threatening (and often human) fauna. The person that Chief was, just like Ed the unnaturally equine pig, needs to go. Chief is like the saint in Flaubert’s tale of St Julien l’Hospitalier. The born-to-rule young aristocrat who has to kill and kill and kill on the hunt is eventually confronted with the magnificent talking stag - himself, the figure he had to bury. Overcome with regret at the destruction he has so wantonly wrought, he becomes a hermit at a dangerous ferry-crossing where he brings warmth to lepers by lying with them.
But that’s not all that needs to go. Uncertain stands for the future of the planet: lake Caddo is dying, and with it the leisure-fishing human settlement it has supported. From an innocuous-seeming corner of the consumer economy - the decorational fish-tank industry- came a native South American plant with no natural predator in Texas. Salvinia Molesta is choking all life out of Uncertain’s lake Caddo.
There’s a small research team working on how it might be stopped; humans in white coats looking into microscopes and trying this and that in precisely controlled and minutely measured greenhouses. The plant has its own nightmarish “more’s law” in this unrestricted environment: it can double in size every 2 to 4 days. And where it has taken over, it drives all life out from the depths underneath. The views continue to be stunning - great trees rising out of the water, alleyways of them like the trees on a French Route National, cathedrals of water, light and leafy heights. And the bright green carpet of Salvinia Molesta.
The scientists bring a council of citizens together into a town-hall meeting. They think they’ve found a possible solution to Molesta: a weavil that feeds on her roots. The geeks can save us: they think they’ve discovered the bug that’ll debug the original hiccough. All it needs is 1 billions larvae and $2m of funds … and, we think, a hope and a prayer that the bugs won’t themselves introduce a plague that’s even worse. But the film is right to emphasise that repairing the world is not just love, forgiveness and personal transformation: science and engineering, at its best, can try to make good again what we’ve broken. The town approves the debug program and the films ends on a Eureka moment, when the scientists have taken a sample from the dark, dead pools below Molesta and shout: “we’ve got weavils”!
The fishing guide (I call him “Guide”) who is another of the 3 troubled men whose life we follow is shown in a frail boat, outboard tilted up to keep the propellor clear of knotty weed, using an old oar to paddle out of the mess. The image of basic struggle is worthy of some of the great water-borne metaphors of humanity in Herzog’s Aguire Wrath of God or Cobra Verde. His life - what is left of it, he is old - depends, at least materially, on the fishing. We see him threading small live fish onto hooks to catch larger fish. And he fishes for tourists, too. Old clients reminisce about the people who can longer find a livelihoood on the lake.
But he too has had trouble sleeping, and he too has killed someone many years before - “murder without malice” is the charge. He grew up in a segregated South; he wanted his children to go to school but was ostracised for such Uncle-Tom-ism, to the point of violence. When someone comes to get him, he shoots in self-defence and kills. We see a photograph of him as a young man - handsome, roguish … “but I’m on the straight and narrow now…”. “Is there a single day when I wish I hadn’t pulled that trigger … no there isn’t …” he says. Guide is like the old man and the sea: his prowess at pulling big wriggling animals out of the water is a well of proud memories. But his wife has died, and since then he’s found himself going to Uncertain’s Baptist church on Sundays rather than into the swampy waters to fish. But his son and daughter are not so sure that he’s quite keeping to the path that goes through the strait gate. He has a girlfriend nearby, and she’s not good for him, they think. At first, he doesn’t want the camera to follow, but eventually we see her: “I like big women”, he’s said before; his girlfriend is that - she’s eating throughout the scene, voracious, always needing more, we feel. We can see how he could lose himself and bury his memories in her amplitude.
But it’s the church that really does him good, not his escapism. He admits to the personal guilt he’s lived with throughout his adult life; “I’ve done wrong; I’ve done good; I pray that the good outweighs the bad”; and he describes a vision of heaven, reunited with his wife, his parents and his children: “I want all of us to be together in Heaven and it will be a glorious day”. He may be a resident of Uncertain, but during his vision, he has no doubt; he will be reunited and whole again, “I know”, he says. And after that vision, he can sleep once more. He has spent the night at his daughter’s trailer. They both wonder at him having slept like a child. His burden is lifted, and, if the weavils do their work, his fishing might even return to its prelapsarian state.
The last story the film follows in detail is that of the young man I started early in the film calling “Rock Star” after his truly terrible karaoke performance in one of Uncertain’s dives - he had just remarked that there was so little to do that “if you stay in Uncertain, you’re retired at 21” and had particularly complained that there were no young women in the town. He had reported his mother to social services for her dereliction and they’d come to take her away. Since then, he and his brothers had lived alone.
The camera lingers over an interior of squalid chaos. Rock Star periodically tries to stop drinking, but it’s hard. He is diabetic and has a gothic tattoo across his chest warning whoever might need to know that he is. At one point, he seems almost content as he lists the necessities of life that he has just been able to pull together - for now. He has “phone, netflix and medicine” and he can “whack off, eat beans and play minecraft”. He records his state of living in a YouTube selfie, and perhaps this self-recording represents the moment of self-awareness: “I’m getting the fuck out of Uncertain” he says as he packs his bags for Austin. It’s important to take the waffle-maker, his bag of grass and a cool-box of insulin. 40 days’ supply is all he’s got. Without a job soon, he’ll be out of drugs. He may have left Uncertain, but precarity follows him to his new life.
He finds a room in a motel run by a deaf family. Work’s not so easy to find, but he has beans to last a bit longer. But we see him next in a hospital bed with an IV - he’d run out of meds and somewhere the Texan health system had found enough socialised care for him not to die. Just at the time that Chief is killing Big Ed, Rock Star reminds us that for him, every day is a fight. Just as Chief recites the Sioux prayer and Guide has his vision of heaven, the film moves back to Austin. Rock Star has had a haircut; he looks like a fresh-faced, almost born-again boy. He’s at a rock concert, smiling benignly. If that was all the insulin’s work, the drugs did him good.
The actual IRL rock-star on stage has a pause from singing and celebrates his fans pointing to the particularity of every person there: “you are all unique; you are all special” we hear, as the camera pans around what could be a university-city youth crowd anywhere in the world. The crowd is weird and queer and exploding with difference. Rock Star from Uncertain, not the one on stage, we feel, has found a home, a small space out of the loneliness of uncertainty.
Uncertain shows us how as humans we can all make a home in the world and make a world that becomes a home. We may break it in all sorts of ways - and the world may damage us - but the film is ultimately a glorious poem of hope that it can - and must - all be repaired.
UNCERTAIN is at the ICA in London from 10th March and On Demand from 17th March at http://uncertainfilm.com/.