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The Unforeseen

Directed by Laura Dunn (Despair) - 3.5 stars

Despite my natural mistrust of any documentary where the heroes and villains are so clearly defined, I couldn’t deny the appeal of “The Unforeseen.” The documentary recounts the debate over Barton Springs, a spring-fed swimming hole in Austin, Tex. As lobbyists and environmentalists argue in and out of court over plans to build housing developments—a plan that would pollute the natural treasure—what was once a local issue becomes a deeper question of private property rights and the good of the community.

In the 1970s, Austin was still a sleepy liberal enclave in the middle of ultra-red Texas. The movie starts at the beginning of Austin’s boom and traces its transformation into the sixteenth-largest city in the nation with the third-highest growth rate from 2000 to 2006. In a brilliant move, the first part of the film seduces the viewer with Austin’s appeal—Willie Nelson, cowboys, and democrats—while the second half outlines the city’s problems of over-population, showing what happens when too many people follow their desire to move to an ideal place.

Director Laura Dunn does a great job capturing the unique texture of Austin with its various subcultures, but she can’t resist playing favorites, privileging ranchers over suburbanites and environmentalists over developers. The film dramatizes the battle over Barton Springs and develops characters who drive the plot forward.

The local charismatic developer who turns his back on the community, the environmental lawyer, and the requisite ill-groomed aging hippie all get their moment in front of the camera. The familiar villains are all there, from Wal-Mart and George W. Bush.

“The Unforeseen” is one of the most masterfully crafted documentaries of recent years. With Hollywood powerhouse Robert Redford on board as an executive producer, the film has the budget to make environmental activism not only engaging but also cinematically stunning.

Footage from the last thirty years is seamlessly interwoven with eerie shots of Austin’s underground aquifer and a haunting voice-over reading Wendell Berry’s poem “Santa Clara Valley.” Shots contrasting the hills of thirty or even fifteen years ago with the bleak suburbs of today provide a visual counterpart to the sprawl outlined in maps and diagrams throughout the film.

But Dunn’s real coup is the interviews, in which a variety of characters speak with disarming candor. Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, is shown in one of the last interviews she gave before her death, twinkling in front of the camera with wry humor. Ancient ranchers with weather-lined faces straight out of “No Country for Old Men” talk about the changes they’ve seen.

Dunn also interviews the opposition—most notably a local lobbyist for Freeport, an international development company. Throughout the interview the man’s disgruntled twang is heard while the camera focuses on his hands doing something with ominously sharp and shiny instruments. Gradually the viewer realizes he is constructing and painting models of miniature bombs and battleships. Dunn’s shot of a flabby old man surrounded by his tiny instruments of mass destruction leaves no doubt as to where her sympathies lie.

“The Unforeseen” is a compelling argument for the local over the outsider, for the community over personal gain. Unsurprisingly, the film is at its best when it focuses on the specific. In the last thirty minutes Dunn abandons her focus on the battle over Barton Springs to examine the issue of urban sprawl more generally.

The end of the film loses its momentum as Dunn neglects her human subjects in favor of familiar generalizations about environmental conservation. The soundtrack switches from the bluesy sounds of Patty Griffin and Jeff Beck to generically-epic instrumentals.

A more serious flaw is Dunn’s failure to fully explore the larger implications of Barton Springs’ story. Not all of those who transplanted to Austin are as unsympathetic as the couple she shows complaining about the lack of a McDonalds or Wal-Mart nearby. The film doesn’t complicate its environmentalist stance with any substantial consideration of the motives driving people to move to areas like Austin and subsequently ruin them.

But the final thirty minutes seemed slow only because the rest of the film is so persuasive. For seventy minutes, it manages to make environmentalists and zoning laws seem compelling. “The Unforeseen” may not explore all of the consequences of urban sprawl, but it should make the uninterested care.

—Staff writer Madeline K. B. Ross can be reached at mross@fas.harvard.edu
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