an essay by dennis lim

Purchase the DVD

a film by
Laura Dunn

other essays by
Dennis Lim

World on a Wire
from Manakamana

The World Viewed
from Two Years At Sea

On paper, Laura Dunn’s The Unforeseen, an absorbing account of the longrunning battle between growth and preservation in Austin, Texas, seems to belong to the thriving genre of the cautionary eco-documentary. But everything about the film, from the rhapsodic imagery to the Wendell Berry quotations, is more in keeping with a reverie than a rallying call. And where most issue-driven documentaries often entail a simplification of the issues, The Unforeseen never stops looking for nuance and complexity, embracing a perspective so vast and themes so timeless it could justifiably be called cosmic.

Dunn’s first feature-length work, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007 and won the Truer Than Fiction award at the following year’s Independent Spirit Awards, focuses on Barton Springs, the beloved three-acre fresh-water swimming hole in downtown Austin and the charged center of the city’s development wars. The film is a deft balancing act that combines hard facts and lyrical abstraction as well as local and global perspectives, on the one hand, a concise history that spells out the geological specifics and the historical roles of activists, developers, lobbyists and the Texas legislature; on the other, a meditative, wideranging rumination on the relationship between man and his environment.

Dunn had just completed her M.F.A. at the University of Texas at Austin a few years ago when she was approached by a friend of Terrence Malick’s, who knew her through the Save Our Springs Alliance, an environmental advocacy group. Malick, a fellow Austin resident and the auteur who cultivated a mood of Emersonian contemplation in movies like Days of Heaven and The New World, was looking for someone to make a film about Barton Springs that he would executive produce. He asked to meet Dunn on the basis of her graduate thesis film, Become the Sky, a documentary about the Texas energy industry. (She had earlier won a Student Academy Award for Green, a documentary about the industrial corridor in Louisiana known as Cancer Alley.)

“He’s one of my real heroes,” Dunn says of Malick. “As someone who’s concerned about the environment but didn’t just want to make literal films about it, I’ve always admired the way nature is a full character in his films, the way he uses landscapes to reflect on bigger questions.”

But it took a while to get on his wavelength. At first, she says, “I’d fax him these treatments and he’d call right back and tear them to shreds. My initial treatments were about the history of Barton Springs, and he’d be like, ‘No, don’t just talk about the facts, talk about the forces behind them.’ So I’d start talking about the political forces and legal forces, and he’d say, 'But what are the forces behind those forces?’ And very quickly we were in this metaphysical realm, which of course is where Terry resides.”

They eventually arrived at a treatment premised on a few dauntingly big questions. “Why does the world come undone? What does it mean to grow? What is the measure of a spring? Those were the questions that framed all my work on the film,” she says. Malick then left Dunn to immerse herself in research. “I like to absorb a lot and then sort it out,” she says. “What I tried to do was create a web of relationships and people and ideas.” She talked to more than 400 people before conducting her first on-camera interview.

Contacted by Malick, Robert Redford, a longtime environmentalist, came on board as executive producer and also appears in the film, reminiscing about his personal connection to Barton Springs. “It’s where my grandfather taught me to swim and my memory of the place has always been intense,” Redford says.

In the late ‘80s, when developers announced plans to build huge subdivisions in the pristine hill country that threatened to compromise the water quality in the underlying limestone aquifer and in Barton Springs, residents of Austin, the state’s capital as well as its countercultural outpost, quickly mobilized. Redford got behind the project. “Even though it was a local situation,” he says, “what was looming was a large issue that was going to be evident all over the country, battlegrounds between environmental legislation and development.”

Dunn juxtaposes the viewpoints of environmental activists with those of their adversaries. Her most memorable interviews are with the powerful lobbyist Dick Brown, who declined to appear on camera (in an inspired touch, Dunn instead trains her camera on his hands as he painstakingly assembles model military aircraft), and the farm boy turned real-estate hotshot Gary Bradley, who emerges not as the designated villain but as a multifaceted and even poignant figure. “His rise and fall and his reflection on his failure, that’s a symbolic arc,” she says. “It suggests a different kind of growth.”

The film’s wider political resonance is hard to miss. Dunn makes clear that the environmental grassroots victories in Austin, which happened under the governorship of the late Ann Richards (who is interviewed in the film), were decisively reversed when George W. Bush took office in 1995. “You see the beginning of what his administration has done to the environment,” Dunn says, referring to the Bush presidency. “You see that the specifics and the mechanics of politics in Austin are connected to what's going on all over the U.S. and arguably globally. That becomes pretty chilling.”

As Redford sees it, The Unforeseen is a story of opposing ideals. “The American dream is the beast with two heads,” he says. “There’s the dream that says develop at any cost, which ties to manifest destiny. But the idea that this is an incredible country, with assets no other country has, that’s the American dream as well, and instead of get what you can get, it should be preserve what you can preserve. The film is about those two parts of the American dream clashing.”

In the course of making the film, those initial questions Dunn had discussed with Malick became both easier and harder to answer: “A question like ‘How do you measure the worth of a spring?’ may seem vague. But from talking to scientists, I can now tell you about the hydrogeological facets of the aquifer and the spring. I could also make an argument about accounting systems and how our GDP doesn’t really measure the depletion of natural resources. But as you learn more, your awe of what is bigger than yourself also becomes more defined. You might say there’s a spiritual dimension to that question as well.”

Malick was involved in the editing process, “He was always pushing me to make something less literal, more poetic,” Dunn says, and his influence can also be felt in the evocative cinematography (by Lee Daniel, a frequent collaborator of Richard Linklater’s), which sets the film apart from most contemporary documentaries. Even the compelling use of maps and motion graphics, designed by Jef Sewell (the film’s producer and Dunn’s husband), one-ups the PowerPoint monotony of An Inconvenient Truth. As she interviewed a cross-section of people, Dunn was struck by the different kinds of maps she encountered, and the different ways of viewing the land that they represented: “The hydrogeologists have these topographical maps showing underneath the surface. People at the state level have maps that show roads and sewer lines. The developers see the land more as a blank canvas, their maps are just something they can draw on.”

There may be viewers who find that The Unforeseen does not quite fit the traditional mold for a consciousness-raising tract. “When we showed the film in Austin,” Dunn says, “there was some criticism for quote-unquote humanizing Gary Bradley,” a longtime foe of the environmental movement. But the film’s cinematic splendor, its intellectual openness, and above all its taste for philosophical complexity suggest intriguing alternative models for the activist-minded documentary. “I don't think that environmentalists are winning and I don't think we’re going to if we keep hammering the same old things,” Dunn says. “Demonizing the developer, oversimplifying the issues, I don't know if that helps us. I’m trying to get people to care about the issue in a new way that maybe transcends this bipolar thinking.”


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