“Uncertain Terms” was screened as part of the Montclair State University Film Institute’s Film and Filmmakers Series, followed by a conversation with director Nathan Silver. The film proved to be both poignant and visually captivating, projecting a recurring feeling of vulnerability laced with brief intervals of laughter. Despite financial hardship, Silver masterfully creates an atmosphere of authenticity.
Professor Roberta Friedman hosted the event as part of her film forum class and led the question and answer portion with Silver. The discussion covered a variety of topics including sources of inspiration, rejection in the film industry, working with small budgets and Silver’s background.
Nathan Silver graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2005. In a short time he has created an impressive number of nine feature-length films, with screenings occurring at festivals around the world. Silver is also an adjunct professor at Montclair State, teaching sections of Filmmaking I and Filmmaking III.
“Uncertain Terms” follows two separate story lines that converge in the same place: a home for pregnant teenagers. Nina, played by India Menuez, is one of the young women that takes refuge at the home run by Carla Gottlieb, played by Cindy Silver, after her parents are unwilling to support her. Robbie, played by David Dahlbom, is the nephew of Gottlieb. When marital indiscretions threaten the legitimacy of his relationship, he offers his help around the house in exchange for a place to stay.
Nina and Robbie provide most of the ensuing conflict as their relationship morphs into a complicated love triangle, both characters seeking safety in other people during the challenges of life-altering crossroads.
The film takes on an existential debate in this way posing questions, like what does it mean to create a life when you aren’t yet sure how to live your own?
In addition to the technically and thematically successful screening, Silver’s commentary afterward contributed to an understanding of the film and its production.
Silver revealed that the story is based on elements of truth. Cindy Silver, who plays Carla Gottlieb, the home’s dutiful mother hen, is also Nathan Silver’s real mom. The story was inspired by her experience as a teen mother at 16 years old. He explained the stigma his mother faced and how her parents tried to hide the situation from public disapproval.
“She was sent away,” Nathan Silver said. “My grandparents told all the neighbors that she’d gone away to California due to a broken heart. She came back with a kid.”
“Uncertain Terms” was initially released in 2014 after a series of mishaps led to the cancellation of a separate project. Nathan Silver was left with no funding and no script. The 70-minute feature was then written in two weeks, and the entirety of the dialogue was improvised on set. Nathan Silver was involved as a director, writer and actor in the feature-length movie. None of the cast members were paid.
Nathan Silver refers to the financing of the film as a “micro-budget,” which effected many of the choices made during production. The film was recorded using handheld techniques without staged lighting, which manages to achieve the seeming authenticity of a documentary without compromising on breathtaking cinematography.
A majority of the story is told using close-ups and reaction shots. Nathan Silver explained that this was a way to present more interesting imagery to supplement an otherwise boring setting. This method determined some narrative decisions as well, meaning dialogue took a backseat to facial expressions and body language.
These choices created a more captivating stylistic mood throughout the film, mirroring reality with shaky footage and long pauses between audible words.
Students had a lot to say about the film and largely considered the event a success.
Kelly Heil, a senior graphic design major, explained how this decision impacted her sense of the narrative.
“I thought the use of close-up shots made the film very personal and intimate,” Heil said. “It felt natural, like viewing the film through your own eyes.”
Alex Kosmowski, a senior graphic design major, believes that the cinematography is what made the film successful.
“The film was really well shot for a low-budget movie,” Kosmowski said. “I feel like a lot of times that’s something that’s overlooked.”
Junior communication and media arts major David Evans was impressed by the film and inspired by Silver’s directing abilities.
“I’m glad he’s a professor here, and I hope to take one of his classes in the future,” Evans said.
Nathan Silver’s last words were advice to aspiring filmmakers in the audience.
“Work as much as possible, on as many projects as possible,” Nathan Silver said. “Failure is part of the work. A very large part.”