The boat slowly chugs through the water, a trail of interference following it. The mist hangs low, hazing the boat and the trees that stand amidst the water. The loosely draping foliage in this opening scene is almost grey. It’s a jarring environment that the boat moves through – like the faulted reality of a dream or some sort of interzone. And though the green returns to the trees in the following scenes, they remain an unsettling feature. The trees are inescapable, they encase and block out any trace of a horizon, as if neutralising the possibility of a future. This disconcerting atmosphere echoes throughout Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands’ outstanding Uncertain, a documentary released earlier this year concerning a small Texan town and its population.
Uncertain has a population of 94, according to the road sign, and sits on Caddo Lake in north-eastern Texas. Ten kilometres or so from the Louisiana border and, as one reviewer noted, 150 km south-west of Hope, Arkansas. ‘Uncertain is not on the way to anywhere,’ to quote the town’s police chief. From this perspective, Uncertain is reminiscent of Errol Morris’ Vernon, Florida, another documentary that focusses on a small, backwater, Southern town. Though both documentaries touch upon God, guns and tedium, Uncertain drags us deeper into the swamp, exposing something far darker, more precarious and altogether haunted.
Inside the boat of the opening scene is Henry, one of the three characters that McNicol and Sandilands’ film follows. Henry has long been a guide for fishermen on the lake but, given the downturn in visitors to Uncertain, he spends most of his days alone, fishing or sitting on the lakeside. Married for over 50 years, Henry recently lost his wife. His loneliness is easily read through his sagging features. Through a financially exploitative relationship with a much younger woman and his visits to the church, Henry tries to fill the void left by his wife. But the sadness that Henry holds in his eyes is not solely the result of his wife’s death. As the camera meanders the lake’s many channels with him, Henry slowly reveals the truth of a trauma that he cannot escape. When much younger, he killed a man. After being called an “Uncle Tom,” Henry shot the man in the chest. The spectres of Henry’s past and present occupy the seats of his rickety boat, they hang over him throughout Uncertain.
Atop his hunting platform, day and night, looking for hogs, Wayne similarly spends his time trying to escape the ghosts of his life. Wayne is focussed on killing Big Ed: the mammoth, alpha-male hog in the forests of Uncertain. If successful, he hopes to encourage diversity in the hog population. The hunting, and the killing of Big Ed in particular, provides Wayne with the meaning that his life longs for. Living in Uncertain with his partner, both are recovering from drug and alcohol dependency. His drug problems led to him being shot and nearly dying, the gouging scars of the ordeal still visible through his clean weight. But it was the killing of a young man in a car accident while high that pushed Wayne towards sobriety. Unable to get a gun license in his native Louisiana, Wayne crossed into Texas to take advantage of a loop hole and so legally hunts with a rifle not much younger than the Civil War. For Wayne, Uncertain allows him to escape the world of pain and begin to comprehend the past that follows his every move.
Unlike Wayne, Zach has not found sanctuary in Uncertain. Instead, he was left orphaned in the town and is debilitated there. After his mother was hospitalised due to violent mental health problems, Zach was left to fend for himself. In Uncertain, there is little prospect for a job let alone a career. ‘If you live in Uncertain, you retire at 21,’ he laments. From a seeming lack of purpose or hope and an overwhelming loneliness, Zach has slipped into alcoholism. His drinking, in combination with his severe diabetes, means that Zach’s future can be counted on the digits of his hands. With no employment and the expense of his medication, he is merely a subject to a vicious existence in Uncertain. As the film progresses, and with an incredible will, Zach manages to move towards sobriety and is able to save a few dollars to get him to Austin, where he hopes to escape the precarity of Uncertain. Once there, however, he fails to find work and is unable to afford his medication, leaving him on life support. The spatial dimensions of precarity reach far beyond Uncertian’s town limits, it ensnares Zach in a seemingly ever widening web. In the closing scenes of Uncertain there is, however, a glimmer of hope: Zach nodding along at a gig. This optimism, having percolated through Uncertain, feels fragile and unsteady, likely to slip from the grip of Zach at any moment.
As shown through Zach’s story, life in Uncertain appears to be deteriorating. Jobs are drying up, things are growing more unsteady and social progress is not mentioned. If we are to believe in modernity, then watching Uncertain is to see it sinking into the swamp. The progress of mankind with the movement of time seems to have stalled and ruptured for the residents of Uncertain, leaving them to be haunted by the ghosts of a failed future. Aside from its societal manifestations, this failure is captured in the multiple time-zones that disconcertingly coexist in the film. Wayne’s 19th century rifle is plastered with 21st century technology, creating an almost steampunk weapon. Zach lives in a collapsing trailer, dust and rubbish coating every surface, but takes comfort playing his Xbox and watching Netflix. These technological advances appear like a placating force against the backdrop of undoubtable socio-economic decline.
The psychological scars of this life are unavoidable in McNicol and Sandilands’ Uncertain. In Wayne, we find a survivor of that which economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have labelled “deaths of despair.” This epidemic of drug overdose, alcohol-related illness and suicide amongst middle-aged, high school educated or less, white Americans is said to be the result of economic dislocation and accumulative despair. Was Zach’s mother another victim of such forces? Indeed, the alcoholism of Zach appears to be a result of similar socio-economic dynamics and, though he escapes it, his addiction offers a worrying vision for the future of this younger, more precariously positioned, generation.
More so than socio-economic decline, environmental degradation is the most glaring indication of the failure of modernity. With climate change, ecological devastation and collapsing biodiversity, we are witnessing the environmental reaction of that which the concept of modernity is based upon – exceptionalism, capitalism, individualism. And though Uncertain is secluded and hidden away, it cannot escape the devastation. Caddo Lake is being eaten by Salvinia molesta. The invasive and highly reproductive weed is believed to have come to the lake after being discarded from a fish tank. The error of the past reverberates with devastating consequences for the future – a familiar phenomenon. The floating mat of Salvinia is consuming the lake’s surface and asphyxiating it. If it continues to grow, it will choke the other species of the lake; if it is killed, its mass is so great that, when it decomposes, it will deoxygenate the lake.
If Caddo Lake was to disappear, so would Uncertain. The town’s population is economically tied to the fishing of the lake and, as the lake is consumed, the income of the town diminishes at the same rate. It leaves Henry scraping to get by, becoming ever more financially unsteady and stressed. Henry’s socio-economic precarity is mirrored in that of the environment in which he lives. As Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing notes in The Mushroom at the End of the World, an ethnography of the Matsutake (a mushroom that prospers amongst human devastation) trade:
Most of the time we imagine…precarity to be an exception to how the world works. It’s what “drops out” of the system…What if precarity, indeterminacy, and what we imagine as trivial are the centre of the systematicity we seek?
‘We are’, to quote Tsing again, ‘stuck with the problem of living despite ecological and economic ruination.’ In Uncertain, these pains of economic and environmental decline are tightly entwined, their distinction blurring. We are left unable to discern between the loss of income, livelihood or environment amongst the furrows of Henry’s brow. This is a psychological state that awaits many of us.
Just as the humans are reliant upon the lake, so are the flora and fauna of Uncertain. It’s a fact that leaves Wayne worried that his hunting grounds will become void of life. But there is a more profound meaning to this – the environmental catastrophe of the present and future requires us, to follow Donna Haraway’s thinking, to make kin with all non-humans. This sentiment is wonderfully captured by Wayne’s own hunting camera in Uncertain: rabbits bounce by, a deer looks down the camera, hogs shuffle past and then Wayne is caught stalking around. And though the scene is captured by human technology, in it we see Wayne as de-differentiated from the other animals. This is much like the environmental tragedy of today – the devastation of nature is purely human in cause, but when nature pushes back, it pushes back against us all, human and non-human.
The subject-subject relationship of human and nature in Uncertain is reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi masterpiece Solaris. In the film, a group of scientists are studying the oceanic and strange, sentient planet of Solaris from a space station. They subject the planet to blasts of radiation and, reciprocally, Solaris materialises the deepest, most despairing thoughts and memories of the scientists. For example, the film’s protagonist, Kris Kelvin, is haunted by the simulacra of his old lover, Hari, who took their own life after Kelvin left them. As such, Solaris is able to exacerbate the pain of memory, much like the environmental devastation of Uncertain compounds and amplifies the socio-economic pains that exist. In both films, when the humans are subject to the manipulations of the planets, they are unable to acknowledge and comprehend this relationship. In Uncertain they hope to solve the Salvinia problem by further manipulating the environment by the introduction of weevils, with a seemingly pure anthropocentric vision.
Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Agnatocene, Chthulucene, whatever terminology we wish to use, surely this new time signifies the collapse of the old walls between the realm of the human – politics, culture, economics, et cetera – and that of the natural. The catastrophic changes of this moment lifts the veil and reveals the tentacular entanglement of the environmental with all aspects of our lives. The most significant theme of Solaris, though perhaps shadowed in Tarkovsky’s rendering, is our inability of understand or communicate between the human and the non-human. In Uncertain, McNicol and Sandilands are able to reveal the knitting and hybridisation of socio-economic and environmental precarity into a troubling yet necessary whole, in much the same way that Tsing’s research and writing has. Uncertain, for its ability to bridge and blur the environmental and human, is poignant work for this time, one that feels increasingly more haunted and hostile than habitable. The Anthropocene, if you wish.
Uncertain is available to watch online on a number of platforms, including Vimeo.
David Lee Astley works in sustainability and writes on politics and culture.