Observing locally and thinking globally, Laura Dunn’s astonishing debut doc feature “The Unforeseen” is the kind of transformative viewing experience that has made the current period a golden age for nonfiction film. Pic takes the history and battles over development and sprawl in Austin, Texas, and launches into a visual, scientific and philosophic rumination of humanity’s place on the planet and the limits to growth. Fests will scramble for this prestige title, and bigscreen values demand a theatrical run.
Pic has a 2008 slot on the Sundance Channel’s new “Green” programming calendar, but the pic is hardly a TV made-for. Idea for a pic about the causes and effects of growth on a city of Austin’s fairly contained size, was suggested to Dunn by Terrence Malick (who exec produces, along with Robert Redford). And in the film’s beauty and constantly surprising visual choices, the background presence of Malick is palpably felt.
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Pic opens with a God’s-eye view of Austin and the sonorous voice of poet Wendell Berry reading from his work, “Santa Clara Valley.” Akin to Malick’s love of verse-like voiceover narration, Berry’s lyrical spirit casts a glow over the rest of “The Unforeseen,” whose title is drawn from a line in Berry’s poem.
Archival footage of counterculture activity in Austin in 1972 underlines how the capital town has set itself apart from the rest of the Lone Star State. But because of Austin’s growing rep as a desirable small city, a steady surge of new residents ironically threatens its desirability. Austinite Willie Nelson likens it to Maui’s problems with overdevelopment.
Dunn’s thoughtfulness comes through most unexpectedly in the manner in which she interviews and captures the character of Gary Bradley, one of the area’s most prominent developers. Rather than being pigeonholed as the black hat of the piece, Bradley embodies the hopes of a guy coming from a hardscrabble rural existence to realize his dreams as a land tycoon.
During his rise to prominence in the 1980s, Bradley was an object of wrath for Austin’s impassioned slow-growth and environmentalist community. In a wonderfully personal interview, Redford recalls spending some of his childhood playing in Barton Springs, and questions the seemingly unquenchable need to pave over natural spaces.
One of the film’s most bracing points is that despite populist victories, growth nevertheless continued, thanks in part to the Texas state legislature, which overthrew local laws enacted by popular referendum. Dunn provides underwater shots of Barton Springs in the mid-’90s and in the present, and the fact that the water is now a cloudy mess speaks loudly.
The director proves herself adept at turning a potential liability into an asset when, acquiescing to the request of Dick Brown, a former key lobbyist for developers, to remain off-camera, she instead trains the lens on Brown’s hands building and painting model military.
In a memorable third act that reveals the suddenly tragic state of Bradley’s life, Dunn finds a startling visual correlative for the terrible costs of rampant urban and suburban sprawl; cancer researcher Judah Folkman describes the process by which tumors grow while the screen fills with a clogging system of water-starved Austin’s roads and sewage systems suggesting systemic meltdown. It’s among the many visuals that make “The Unforeseen” essential viewing. As a cinematic contemplation of human activity on the planet, it far surpasses “An Inconvenient Truth” and its more lecture-like message on global warming.
Magnificently lensed in HD and 16mm by Lee Daniel, the pic attains Malick’s kind of lyrical beauty, and links the images with a resourceful and mind-altering use of maps and motion graphics (care of producer Jef Sewell). Music selections, from Arvo Part to Sigur Ros, are interesting and suited to the pic’s depth. Forceful pic will get its first Austin public screening at South by Southwest fest.