Sunday, November 2, 2008


The Unforeseen may be the best documentary you've never seen. Although it gathered critical accolades everywhere it went, it didn't stray far from the festival circuit (missing the Twin Cities altogether.) Powerful, intelligent and extremely well crafted, it uses Austin, Texas as a microcosm for the cyclical economic and ecological mire we have been sinking into for decades. The overarching themes ask that we examine the American Dream in a way that is thoughtful without being judgmental. Don't let the names of Terrence Malick and Robert Redford as executive producers deceive you, this film is independently minded and is as close as you're going to get to a movie that matters.

At the crux of the documentary are two opposing forces: development and conservation. Not exactly a unique adversaries nor an unusual topic, but this story gets told with an investigative curiosity rather than an accusatory finger. On the development side is Gary Bradley, an upstart real estate developer who capitalized on the Austin boom in the 1970s. On the conservation side is Barton Springs, an important source of fresh water that is often referred to as "the soul of a city." Stuck in the middle is the city of Austin and the state of Texas tinged with a fluctuating political climate.

The drama starts after Bradley finds himself in a financial bind during the Savings and Loan Crisis of the early 80s. A multinational company, Freeport McMoran, comes in to bail out Bradley and capitalize on opportunities in Austin. Freeport follows what has been successful for Bradley and proposes a huge subdivision to be built around Barton Creek and Barton Springs. A large protest ensues, initiated by Earthfirst! but eventually garnering public support against the development. Hundreds of people sign up to testify at a public hearing that lasts all night, ending in the city council denying the permit to build the Barton Creek development. Furthermore, a coalition was formed a put an ordinance on the ballot in 1992 to protect the quality of water coming off of development in the Barton Springs watershed; the Save Our Springs Ordinance passed with two-thirds of the vote. However, two years later, Texas had a new governor that was sympathetic to developers. Lobbyist, who had been fighting hard against the restrictive ordinance, found a friend in George W. Bush. The newly elected governor quickly grandfathered in developers allowing them do pretty much anything they wanted.

What may seem like a city of Austin history lesson is anything but. Director Laura Dunn is careful to look at the issues surrounding this timeline from every angle. Interviews from Gary Bradley to former Texas governor Ann Richards to powerful lobbyist Dick Brown, The Unforeseen builds the issue's complex web from the inside out. But it is the interviews that form the outside of that web (the ranchers, the academics, the concerned citizens) that give the film its substance. As easy as it would have been to turn Bradley or Brown into a villain, the film is more interested in understanding than condemning, and this sentiment is passed along to the viewer.

More than just an in-depth inquiry, the film is carried by a poetic aesthetic. Opening with Wendell Berry reading from his poem "Santa Clara Valley" (which echoes many of the concerns of the film), the first shot from a skyscraper construction high above the city fills you with the awe that no doubt many developers feel. The power that we have over the landscape, and the contrary effect that nature has upon man is a reoccurring theme. The beautifully cinematography and graphic animations add a visual dynamic to the story, juxtaposing the Austin "grid" with the stark landscape that lies just beyond its boarders. Unwilling to allow function to triumph over form, The Unforeseen weaves the likes of Arvo Pärt and Sigur Rós into the soundtrack among the dustbowl, the growing grid, the demonstrations, and Barton Springs.

It's hard not to quibble about Robert Redford's involvement in the film. Although Malick seems to have acted as a mentor and guiding force for the film, at least he doesn't appear in the film. Redford's testamonials as a former resident of Austin simply take up too much screen time with anecdotes that seem hollow. The Unforeseen, Dunn's first feature length documentary, should be a testament to her skills not Redford's mug.

Every moment is a turning point, but it is very hard to watch this documentary and not feel that everything hangs in the balance right now, with our generation. The archive footage of the initial public hearing against the development around Barton Spring is powerful and moving. An emblem of the movement, "If the people lead, the leaders will follow," is full of hope for what democracy is supposed to be; a true tribute to the power of the people. But how quickly tides turn, and popular opinion can swing given the right persuasion. When environmental laws began restricting developers, the spin was that it was an assault on private property. More than ever we seem to be on the precipice of complete collapse. We desperately need to rethink the way we live our lives, and, ironically, we also seem to be on the precipice of collectively understanding this need. The very heart and soul of The Unforeseen is this notion of empowerment and unselfish decision making. It's an incredibility elegant film about convoluted nature of power structures not only in Austin, but in our global economy.

The Unforseen was recently released on DVD. Buy it through Laura Dunn's website here and receive her documentary Green for free.


Daniel Getahun said...

Fascinating. Are you sure it never came here? It sounds familiar for some reason. Either way, I missed it, dang it.

Kathie Smith said...

I'm ready to be proven wrong, but I'm pretty sure it didn't play here. It's really an amazing film. I actually ordered the DVD so I could loan it out to people. By ordering the DVD directly, I also get a copy of Dunn's 2000 short doc Green which also looks great. If interested I would be glad to loan them to you.

Mason said...

Does sound like good stuff. Many people (o.k., most) don't realize cities like Austin & Dallas/Fort Worth have followed/enforced strict environmental standards, if memory serves it's signified by anywhere from 1 to 5 "blue stars", since the early '80s... far ahead of the rest of the country. In fact, several This Old House projects featured these standards over the years. When they actually get out of the Boston area that is. :) I'll keep an eye open for the DVD.

Daniel Getahun said...

Maybe I saw it listed somewhere else. I should probably take you up on that offer at some point - I'll just have to remember.

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